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Texts without tax?


Students, city at odds over sales tax charged on book sales

By Brad Rollins
San Marcos Daily Record Staff Reporter
March 21, 2007

San Marcos Like most university students, Amanda Oskey knows how painful shelling out cash for textbooks each semester can be.

When the Texas State University Associated Student Government vice president helped organize a petition drive in support of exempting textbooks from state and local sales tax, more than 2,100 signed on in just days.

“With the cost of higher education increasing rapidly, many students are being priced out of the education market, and in turn, their future. ...In many cases, the cost of textbooks is so high that many students opt not to purchase them at all,” Oskey testified before the House’s Higher Education committee last week.

She joined student leaders from other state universities speaking in support of a number of bills the authors of which say will provide relief to students who have seen double digit percentage tuition increases year-to-year since 2003.

One bill by Rep. Abel Herrero would require instructors to use the same texts for core curriculum courses for at least three years. Several house members have signed on as co-authors for Rep. Scott Hochberg’s sweeping bill, which places the Higher Education Coordinating Board in the role of negotiating with textbook publishers for bulk discounts and creates criminal penalties for administrators to accept a commission from publishers, a practice educators says is rare.

And not least of all, one bill by Hays County’s State Rep. Patrick M. Rose would create two 30-day holidays at the beginning of the fall and spring semesters during which students wouldn’t have to pay state or local sales tax. A second bill by the Dripping Springs Democrat, also supported by Texas State student leaders, would allow students to use financial aid to purchase textbooks at independent, off-campus stores.

“The costs for every part of a university education in the state of Texas have grown so much, that I think the least we can do is work to make textbooks more affordable,” said Rose, who sits on the Higher Education committee that heard testimony on the bills.

In the end, the legislators left all four proposals pending in committee. Rose said he is working with his colleagues to bring them to a vote in time for consideration on the House floor. State Sen. Judith Zafarini has a similar tax-free holiday bill being considered in the Senate.

Part of the hesitation hinges on the loss of revenue to local governments, like the city of San Marcos, which collects a twice-yearly windfall on textbook sales.

If Rose’s measure passes, city governments across the state would collectively lose about $30.3 million in revenue in its first five years, according to an analysis of the bill by the Legislative Budget Board. During the same period, counties would lose an estimated $4.6 million. The state would have to absorb $188.4 million less in general fund revenue during the first five years.

In San Marcos, the city would collect an estimated $364,500 a year less in sales tax revenue based on an enrollment of 27,000. Supporters of the tax-free textbook proposals say the average annual textbook cost is about $900 per student.

The city council is on record as opposing the tax breaks, although Mayor Susan Narvaiz says the issue is a part of a bigger picture of unfunded mandates handed down by lawmakers.

“For us, it’s more of a matter of the state making decisions about local matters and then we have to live with the situation they create. ...I’d rather them give each city the authority to take up the issue itself and make a decision. ...That’s where the real argument is, not necessarily that we’re talking about textbooks and students,” Narvaiz said.

Rose said he has heard from city officials who are concerned about the loss of revenue. But, he said, “I would argue that students already contribute a great deal to the San Marcos economy.”

Pointing out that 18 other states already exempt textbooks from sales tax, Oskey said the city will make up any lost revenue in sales elsewhere.

“Any cost that may come with this proposal is marginalized by the boundless human capital that is provided when higher education is supported,” she said. “Ultimately, tax-free textbooks are good for the economy and the immediate savings from this legislation will be treated as discretionary income by students, which equates to more transactions for other businesses.”