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Published on February 5th, 2013 | by Len Lazarick

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Tax breaks for textbooks offered as way to hold down college costs

By Becca Heller
Becca@MarylandReporter.com

Dollars in booksWith the cost of college tuition and textbooks on the rise, legislators are proposing sales tax breaks on textbooks in hopes of providing financial relief to students.

According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the average college student will spend about $1,300 on textbooks and supplies in this school year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Sheila Hixson and Del. Michael Smigiel advocated different versions of textbook tax breaks before her committee Tuesday. Smigiel, R-Cecil, outlined a plan for year-round tax exemption on textbooks, while Hixson proposed setting a limited time period during which students can purchase their books tax-free.

But some committee members doubted tax breaks would do much good and were afraid that another tax break would further reduce the state’s thinly-stretched budget.

Losing the revenue already to Internet sellers

“Right now most students go online to buy textbooks, so we lose that revenue and our brick and mortar stores lose that revenue,” Smigiel said.

Smigiel and Hixson’s proposed tax cuts would reduce next year’s state revenue by approximately $7.8 and $6.3 million respectively. However, both legislators are confident that the tax break would create a strong incentive for students to shop for textbooks locally and boost the state’s economy on a more sustainable level.

Others, including Del. Anne Kaiser, D-Montgomery, questioned the extent to which the tax break would increase sales in Maryland, suggesting that local bookstores would still struggle to compete with book prices on Amazon.com and other online stores.

Witness Meghan Carpenter, a member of the student council at UMBC, admitted to the committee that she buys books from Amazon.com.

“I know money spent on textbooks would be much more beneficial if it stayed in the state, but the costs do add up,” she said. “The money I saved on Amazon has allowed me to take a day off my part-time work and work as an intern here.”

Carpenter said that the tax break could make buying books at the bookstore more affordable.

Richard Lucas, sophomore class president at Bowie State University, also emphasized the importance of the proposed tax breaks.

“With the costs of tuition rising, every penny matters,” he said. “I believe that even the most marginal cuts would make an impact.”

Lamenting rising prices

As Vice Chancellor of University System of Maryland P.J. Hogan, a former senator, took the witness stand, the committee shifted gears to analyze the possible causes of the increasing costs of textbooks in college book stores.

Committee Vice Chair Frank Turner, D-Howard, drew from his personal experience as a Morgan State University professor and author.

“When I walk into the bookstore and I see my book jump from $180 to $300, there’s a problem. And I think that problem is with the university,” Turner said.

Hogan rebutted Turner’s conjecture emphatically, asserting that “the administration has no part in setting textbook prices” and stating that the publishers were to blame for jacking up textbook prices.

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