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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Governor Should Learn to Lose on Teacher Tax Break

May 29, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Bad policy. Not bad politics. That sums up Gov. Gray Davis' ridiculed proposal to excuse public school teachers from paying the state income tax.

Davis won't yet concede it's poor policy because he's still enjoying the political profit. He broke out of his boring mode and became bold, attracting attention from the national news media and fellow pols.

"I give him an A-plus for creativity and thinking outside the box," says Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee on education. But O'Connell doesn't support Davis' idea, nor do hardly any legislators.

"I don't like it at all," says Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee. "Start with the fact you're pitting one employee group against another."

Davis has vowed to "stand up and fight for this puppy." He has reminded staffers that a governor gets about 70% of what he wants and has told them he wants this.

But this dog is falling into the losing 30% because, among other reasons, the intended beneficiaries don't even want it. Indeed, many are embarrassed.

Teachers--frequent critics of the Democratic governor--do appreciate the thought, but are telling him, "No thanks."

"They like the intent, but I haven't talked to one who thinks it's a great idea," says Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Assn. "They're real uncomfortable with being treated differently, as a sacred cow."

A CTA poll of teachers found that two-thirds consider tax-free pay a bad concept.

Teachers, by nature, prefer to keep a low profile. They're not brawlers. They just want to be left alone to teach kids.

Now Davis' proposal has riled up the teacher-haters who are attacking on talk shows and in letters to editors.

Education advocates worry that an anti-teacher backlash will hurt their efforts in November to beat a voucher initiative and win approval of a measure making it easier to pass local school bond issues.

Says Johnson: "He created an issue that we really didn't need at this time."

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Teaching would be the only occupation totally exempt from paying the state income tax. It's a bit disingenuous, however, to yelp about unfairness. State law is riddled with tax loopholes many might consider unfair.

For example:

* Legislators pay no tax on their $121 per diem, received seven days a week for the roughly seven months they're in session. It totals almost what some starting teachers make--and is on top of the lawmakers' $99,000 salaries.

* Churches pay no property tax, although many aggressively try to influence politics and public policy.

* Neighbors are treated unequally on property taxes, even though their homes may be of equal value.

* Low-income people don't even have to file a state tax return. For a married couple with two kids, the income threshold for filing is $35,040.

* The more children you have, the smaller your income tax. You get a $227 state tax credit for each classroom-clogging child.

* Those multimillion-dollar lottery winnings are exempt from the state income tax

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Fairness aside, the big problem with Davis' idea is that it would severely injure teachers as political players. They'd be dismissed as tax deadbeats--scoffed at when arguing for better working conditions and higher salaries.

Some nerve, you don't even pay taxes!

And they'd be drawn into a constant struggle to protect the tax exemption.

Just pay us what we're worth, we'll pay the taxes, teachers are urging.

Legislators are scrambling for alternatives to Davis' $545-million tax tool for attracting and keeping good teachers.

Sen. O'Connell is pushing a $325-million plan to raise beginning teachers' pay to $38,000. Now, it's in the $26,000-to-$32,000 range.

Sen. Alpert wants to pay teachers another $2,500 for an extra month's non-classroom work, such as mentoring.

But the Assembly assumes Davis will insist on some type of tax break, since that's where he started. Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin (D-Duncan Mills), a career teacher, is suggesting tax-free sabbatical pay and state contributions to tax shelters.

They're also mulling over tax credits for buying classroom supplies and personal laptop computers, and making the governor's performance bonuses tax-free.

Davis needs to choose from inside the box and slink away from an unacceptable idea that does nobody any favors.

The governor can't lose on this--unless he insists on winning.

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