ANNAPOLIS – A bill to make college textbooks tax-free was discussed this week by a Maryland legislative committee for the seventh time since 2006. For the seventh time, it may die without further action.
“Give it a vote,” Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., R-Cecil, said at the committee hearing. “Vote it down, but give it a vote.”
If passed, Maryland would join all of its bordering states with tax-free textbooks for higher-education.
For fiscal 2015, this tax exemption would cost the state’s general fund $7.5 million in revenue. By fiscal 2019, it would cost $9 million, according to the bill’s fiscal note.
That’s another way of saying students would save $7.5 million during the next school year.
That number already subtracted the amount lost from the 25 to 40 percent of textbooks purchased in ways that are not subjected to sales tax, such as through online retailer Amazon.
Delegate Jay Walker, D-Prince George’s, sees Smigiel’s bill as a matter of establishing priorities.
“Which is more important?” Walker said. “Keeping tuition frozen or taking taxes off of textbooks?”
Smigiel reminded the committee that tuition could increase by 3 percent under Gov. Martin O’Malley’s budget proposal.
“College affordability is the key,” Walker said in an interview. “We’re leading the nation in college affordability.”
During the hearing, Walker reminded Smigiel of the usual argument he hears from his Republican colleagues.
“’We’re spending too much, we’re spending too much,’” Walker quoted.
Because items such as baby oil, steamed crabs and tampons are tax-exempt, Smigiel believes there is room in the budget to help college students.
“If we can give bailing twine a tax break, we can give students a tax break on the material they need,” Smigiel said.
In the current school year, the average college student will pay nearly $1,300 for textbooks and supplies, according to the fiscal note. That equates to nearly $80 in taxes per student.
“Tuition can be very complicated,” said Jeff Sullivan, president of the Washington College Student Government Association. “Cutting taxes for required textbooks is very simple.”
However, Katherine Mooney, a senior and president of the Salisbury University Student Government Association, disagrees.
“This is a really complex issue, and this bill won’t fix it,” Mooney, 21, of Ellicott City, said. “People will be spending a lot of money on textbooks.”
Sullivan, a 21-year-old senior from Harrington, Del., where there is no sales tax, sees a “mixed message” being sent from lawmakers who claim that education is their priority.
Smigiel recognized that mixed message and wants his bill to receive a vote so that students can see the choices lawmakers are making for them.
“They’re keeping the bill in the drawer so that students don’t look down and see it,” Smigiel said in an interview. “If it’s so economically bad that you can’t give the students the tax breaks, then have the courage to vote it down.”
As of Thursday, there has been no vote on the bill.
Mooney, like Walker, believes there’s no room for tax-free textbooks in the budget.
“We’d be taking revenue away from the state,” said Mooney, whose parents funded her college tuition. Her parents did, however, require her to pay for her own books, which she often rented to save money.
Across the country, 65 percent of students don’t buy their textbooks because of the price, according to a report released this week by Maryland Public Interest Research Group.
“It causes a lot of students not to buy necessary material for their classes,” Sullivan said.