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Letter to the Senate on the Consolidated Appropriations Act and tax extenders package

December 17, 2015

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association (NEA) and the students they serve, we urge you to VOTE YES on the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016/tax extenders package (H.R. 2029) to be voted on as early as Friday. Votes associated with this bill may be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 114th Congress.

This FY16 omnibus appropriations bill includes a Labor-HHS-Education allocation that prioritizes critical education programs that provide targeted assistance for students most in need and includes a two-year delay of the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) excise tax provision. The bill also extends multiple tax provisions that will help students, working families, and education; although we believe Congress ought to work to find future and ongoing offsets for these and other important tax expenditures. Passing this bill is critical; it would be a mistake to let the government shut down or to revert to a short-term continuing resolution for all agencies.

We are pleased that the bill builds from the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, which took an important step in providing relief to sequester level cuts, and includes an overall Department of Education funding increase of $1.2 billion. Crucially, this bill prioritizes critical formula grant programs that are so essential to creating opportunity and providing targeted help to students in poverty, children with disabilities, and those most in need of extra assistance. The bill makes added investments to these goals by increasing funding for Title I by $500 million, IDEA state grants by $415 million, and HEAD Start by $570 million. Preschool Development Grants have been restored at $250 million which will provide high-quality early learning for more than 100,000 children, and the maximum Pell Grant award will be increased by $140 to $5,915 through the bill.

Further program increases that will help students and families most in need include Impact Aid, 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Rural Education, Indian Education, Arts in Education, Promise Neighborhoods, Federal TRIO programs, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Also, funding has been restored for Title II, Teacher Quality State Grants that provide for professional development and improving the professional continuum for educators.

The bill also includes a two-year delay on the ACA’s excise tax provision that will provide much-needed short-term relief. While we continue to strongly support the ACA, we will maintain our support for full repeal of the excise tax. The excise tax provision of the ACA is a 40 percent tax on the cost of employer-sponsored health coverage that exceeds certain amounts, generally $10,200 for individual coverage and $27,500 for family coverage – it’s often thought to only affect high-end and overly-generous health plans. In reality, however, this tax will have an indiscriminate impact on a broad range of individuals and families who, for reasons they cannot control, have health plan premiums that already or soon will reach the tax’s cost thresholds.

We appreciate the exclusion of policy provisions that have no place in an omnibus bill. For instance, prohibition of expanding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or implementing the proposed Deferred Action for Parents of Americans programs, or riders to block the implementation of the Department of Education’s Gainful Employment rule or any other higher education policy. NEA members are also pleased that multiple anti-worker riders were not included that were present in the House and Senate Committee marks, like preventing the National Labor Relations Board from implementing rules to streamline union elections.

On the tax side of the bill we support the following provisions in particular:

Educator Tax Deduction

We applaud the recognition of the personal out-of-pocket sacrifices educators make every year for classroom supplies and ongoing professional development. For the first time, the tax extender package permanently extends the educator tax deduction, indexes the deduction cap to inflation, and includes professional development as a deductible expense. This permanent extension will provide relief to educators across the country that spent approximately $1.5 billion of their own money during the 2013-14 school year on classroom supplies and professional development, according to the marketing company SheerID. Indexing the deduction cap to inflation will ensure that this permanently extended provision will have maximum impact for years to come as prices increase on the books, pencils, paper, art materials, and litany of classroom supplies educators purchase. Even when they must sacrifice their own personal needs to cover the cost of materials and supplies, educators do so to ensure their students have what they need to succeed. Ongoing professional development is important for the same reason—it helps ensure each educator has the resources, mentoring, and support every professional needs so they can inspire students’ natural curiosity, imagination, and love of learning.

Qualified Zone Academy Bond (QZAB) Program

Too many of today’s students are housed in yesterday’s buildings with out-of-date technology and often unsafe, crumbling infrastructures. The extension of the QZAB provision, with a $400 million issuance of bonds during 2016, will aid in repairing and upgrading our nation’s public schools and classrooms which are more than 40 years old on average and could need as much as $197 billion in repairs and upgrades according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The QZAB program has proven to be an efficient and cost-effective way to help disadvantaged communities address pressing renovation and repair needs. Investors receive a federal tax credit equal to the amount of interest payable on the bonds, thereby relieving local taxpayers and municipalities of the interest burden. A school that is awarded a QZAB may use the funds to renovate and repair buildings, provide teacher training, invest in equipment, and update technology which are all vital to student well-being and success.

Additional Provisions

NEA also supports the inclusion of the child tax credit (CTC), earned income tax credit (EITC), and American opportunity tax credit in the tax extender package, all of which have been made permanent. In addition to the immediate relief low- and moderate-income working families receive, the CTC and EITC have also been linked to benefits at virtually every stage of life. According to a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, research indicates that children in families receiving the tax credits do better in school, are likelier to attend college, and can be expected to earn more as adults. 

While we are pleased with the inclusion of several provisions in this package, we are disappointed that the agreement would essentially create a two-tier tax system, denying newly legalized domestic violence survivors, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, and others the rights enjoyed by other tax filers with identical economic circumstances. The agreement would bar millions of tax-paying immigrants receiving Social Security numbers from access to vital tax credits and would enact additional barriers on those who wish to file taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, making tax compliance for working immigrant families even more difficult.

Again, moving forward, we encourage Congress to work to find future and ongoing offsets for tax expenditures, particularly as the need for additional revenue will continue. We can create a fairer tax system to ensure that corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share, and make it easier for working families to have a fair shot.

On behalf of our nation’s students, educators, and working families, we encourage you to Vote Yes on the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016/tax extenders package (H.R. 2029) which extends important tax provisions for working families and educations and makes needed investments in education, students and communities by correctly prioritizing programs that create opportunity and target resources to students most in need, regardless of their zip code.  

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler

Director, Government Relations