NEA Agrees To Abandon Property-Tax Break

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The National Education Association will lobby Congress to kill its own exemption from paying District of Columbia property taxes, NEA President Bob Chase said last week, provided that revocation of the exemption isn't linked to creation of a voucher program for local students.

The tax change could cost the union a little over $1 million a year, but would eliminate a favorite target for the NEA's critics, who have often cried foul because the union pays no property taxes on its $51.7 million Washington headquarters.

The exemption dates to 1906, when the NEA, then a professional association not involved in collective bargaining, received a congressional charter.

Some critics have said the NEA should have lost the exemption after it was first recognized as a union in the late 1970s. Although dozens of other nonprofit organizations here are excused from paying property taxes, the NEA is the only one that is a labor union.

"Our action today is another step toward taking responsibility for students across America," Mr. Chase said in making the announcement at a press conference here. He said he hoped the capital city would use the new revenue to help support its struggling public schools.

The 2.3 million member NEA, with an annual operating budget of some $185 million, will not have to raise annual dues to cover the estimated $1.1 million tax bill, Mr. Chase said. Asked why the organization had earlier opposed revoking the exemption, he said, "It has been an attempt to remove the charter in total."

Aside from the tax exemption, the NEA's congressional charter is of largely symbolic significance, serving as a kind of recognition of the group's mission.

Political Leverage?

But the NEA's willingness to give up its tax break is not unconditional. Mr. Chase vowed that the union would support measures to revoke the exemption only if legislators did not "attach unrelated provisions that would harm D.C. children." According to Mr. Chase, that includes provisions for voucher programs that provide publicly funded scholarships to allow parents to send their children to private schools.

Such a bill is now being considered in the House. A measure passed by the House Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on the District of Columbia would both strip the NEA of its local tax exemption and create a new $7 million federally financed voucher program that would pay families up to $3,200 a year to send their children to private school.

The legislative report accompanying the District of Columbia appropriations bill also says specifically that money generated by the new tax on the NEA would be used to help pay for charter schools. Although the NEA is not opposed to the District of Columbia using some of the tax revenue for charter schools, the organization is opposed to specifically earmarking their funds only for that purpose.

Officials at the NEA said last week that they will oppose the House bill and instead throw their weight behind a Senate appropriations bill that does not include provisions for vouchers or language earmarking NEA tax payments for charter schools.

But late last week the full Senate began debating an amendment, offered by Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., to add a voucher program to its bill. A floor vote is expected early this week. President Clinton has pledged to veto the bill if it includes a voucher plan.

Only two years ago, the labor organization lobbied against a legislative proposal that would have revoked the tax exemption. The measure failed 213-210 in the House. And last year, the NEA paid the District of Columbia government $100,000 in an arrangement called "payment in lieu of taxes."

The NEA last week encouraged other tax-exempt organizations in Washington to consider paying local taxes.

Critics' Reactions Mixed

The NEA's announcement drew some praise from conservative members of Congress.

"It's a good thing when folks decide to pay their taxes," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California, in a statement. He was one of the Republicans who drafted the House language that would revoke the tax exemption.

But the offer failed to fully quell the skepticism of some of the NEA's frequent critics.

"There are a number of things they get out of this by paying something they should have been paying anyway," said Paul Steidler, who directs the Education Reform Project of the Alexis de Toqueville Institution, a conservative think tank in Arlington, Va.. "It does give the NEA a lot of leverage and even enhances their credibility in opposing the scholarships and in torpedoing the money allocated for charter schools."

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