Don’t Tax Teachers?

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

It seems those pushing a bill to eliminate state income taxes for teachers have a large strategic hurdle to clear. Teachers through their unions frequently campaign for more taxes. How would it look if teachers are campaigning for more taxes and they no longer have to pay income taxes? Bad optics, as they say in the PR biz.

A bill to encourage more teachers to remain in the profession by eliminating state income taxes for 10 years is designed to offset the shortage of teachers reported in many school districts across the state. SB 807 author Sen. Henry Stern argues that investing in teachers is the “ultimate economic stimulus.” In fact, supporters have favorably compared the bill to tax credits and tax cuts offered segments of the business community to spur the economy.

The teacher tax avoidance plan is not a direct stimulus to the economy as the typical business proposal. No question enterprise zones or, for example, the film tax credit, were undertaken to boost the economy and there have been some successes along those lines. Supporters of SB 807 argue an economic boost to the state would come through better-educated students. The comparison is a stretch, but the point is taken that the proposal is to create an incentive for teachers in a similar way businesses are incentivized to carry on their business in California cities or the state.

There are a number of issues that the bill’s supporters have to deal with.

For one, a similar issue raised against some of the business credits is that such laws show favoritism to certain industries, or in the teachers’ case, professions. The bill’s backers would argue the goal benefits society as a whole, but a similar argument could be applied to others such as first responders who might seek the same treatment.

Further, what reaction to expect from the average taxpayer? Already, there is an argument that public employees enjoy benefits private workers don’t have from generous pensions (backed by the taxpayers), to a more liberal holiday, days-off policy, and now perhaps the possibility to avoid state income taxes. We must be careful not to separate the public workers too far from the citizens they serve.

With teachers in particular, we are again raising the tax issue. Billions of dollars for schools have been raised through tax increases on the state and local levels in recent elections. Yet, we hear there is never enough money spent on schools. Yet, this proposal benefiting teachers punches a potential $617 million hole in the state budget.

And, there is that problem mentioned above that teachers campaigning for tax increases would have to explain why they are excused from paying taxes.

Legislators will ask how the tax changes and increased income for teachers will add to the CalSTRS pension situation. Will teacher salary raises from school districts be less forthcoming for teachers since they are receiving a raise by not paying taxes, thus negating the idea behind the bill to encourage teachers to remain in the job by boosting income?

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