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Teacher tax credit included in bill

February 17, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - The prospects of a tight budget given the state of the economy haven't stopped Eastern Panhandle lawmakers from renewing long-standing efforts to get financial help for teachers and seniors in the first session of the 79th Legislature.

A bill that would allow newly hired teachers for "critical-needs areas" to claim a tax credit was reintroduced Monday, albeit with a new number - Senate Bill 265 - and four new sponsors.

"The important thing is to keep the issue on the front burner," said Sen. John R. Unger II, who is the bill's lead sponsor this year.

Sens. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson; Ron Stollings, D-Boone; Majority Leader H. Truman Chafin; and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeffrey V. Kessler, also have signed on as sponsors to a bill that died in the Senate Finance Committee last year.

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The way "critical needs" are defined is based on subject and geographic areas.

The bill proposes that the critical-needs teachers be eligible for a $1,000 tax credit in their first three years of employment and then a $500 tax credit through their eighth year, according to the version of the bill that was introduced.

While a relatively small benefit, Unger said it was important to avoid causing a "big sticker shock."

If it were passed, "next year we can come back and build off it," Unger said.

Before it died last year, the "critical-needs" bill was replaced with substitute legislation in the Senate Education Committee that specified the tax credit amount that is being proposed this year, according to the West Virginia Legislature's Office of Reference & Information.

Even if the bill is not the solution to hiring and retaining teachers, Unger said he hopes to keep the discussion going.

Snyder noted the concerns of hiring qualified teachers was "a major problem" in the Eastern Panhandle, particularly in Berkeley County, where 1,000 teachers have been hired to keep up with the explosion of growth and also to replace educators who have left for higher pay elsewhere.

Snyder said he planned to propose some legislation on the issue as well this session, but wasn't ready to discuss it Monday.

Snyder and Chafin on Monday also joined Unger in support of Senate Joint Resolution 9, which proposes that each of the state's 55 counties have the flexibility to provide tax relief to senior citizens through adjustment of the homestead exemption.

If adopted, the resolution would trigger a vote on amending the state's constitution to enable counties to decide whether to increase the homestead exemption from $20,000 to as much as $50,000 or 30 percent of the assessed valuation of a person's property, according to the resolution.

Counties where property values haven't increased as much as high growth areas like the Eastern Panhandle would not be forced to make any adjustments, but seniors in each county could still lobby their local leaders for relief, Unger said.

"The cost of living in McDowell County is a whole lot different than Berkeley and Jefferson county," said Snyder, who added that he also plans to introduce legislation to help seniors in the 60-day session.

Last week, Dels. Craig Blair, Walter E. Duke and Jonathan Miller signed on as sponsors of House Joint Resolution No. 4, which targets tax relief for seniors who live in mobile homes.

Blair said he anticipates more homestead exemptions proposals to be introduced this session, but was doubtful that anything will be passed, given the economy.

"The hopes of doing that this year are probably pretty slim," Blair said.

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