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Carnahan clarifies stance on Bush tax cuts, hears strong support from NEA

Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate, on Tuesday clarified her position on the Bush tax cuts by saying that she eventually may support a phaseout of tax reductions for the wealthiest Americans once the economy was back on track.

"It's a matter of timing. Right now is not the time to do this," Carnahan said in an interview after she had addressed members of the Missouri National Education Association in a tele-town hall held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

Carnahan has touched off controversy ever since telling reporters at the Missouri state fair last week that she no longer favored the view of President Barack Obama and some Democratic congressional leaders that the Bush tax breaks should expire for taxpayers who earn more than $250,000 a year. Some economists say that ending the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans could reduce the nation's long-term projected budget debt by about a third.

The tax cuts for American taxpayers were put in place in 2001, when the federal government was experiencing budget surpluses. All are slated to expire at the end of this year, unless Congress acts to extend some or all of them.

Carnahan had told reporters last winter that she didn't think the nation could afford to keep the cuts in place for wealthier Americans, at a time of budget deficits and a rising national debt.

Carnahan said Tuesday that she had changed her mind because "we've been continuing down a very dark path economically for the last six months."

She added that she wanted one point to be very clear: "I think the middle-class tax cuts should be made permanent."

She backs at least a temporary extension for higher-income Americans because "with a recession as long and difficult to get out of as it is...I don't think this is the time to raise taxes" on anyone.

Her Republican rival, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, sides with congressional Republicans who want to make permanent all of the tax cuts, saying that it is unfair to shortchange wealthier Americans who already pay a larger share of the nation's income taxes. Blunt and others also contend that many small businesses would be affected because about 40 percent file tax returns as individuals, not businesses.

Blunt's campaign has questioned the sincerity of Carnahan's shift on the tax cuts. She also has come under fire from irked Democrats who agree with the White House view.

But Carnahan says she is in the same camp with some Democrats and economists who say that the upper-income tax breaks should be temporarily kept in place for at least a year or two, until the economy is stronger.

"We need to figure out the right time to consider a phase-out (of the Bush tax cuts) for those in the upper income brackets," she said, but only when the economy is back on solid footing.

Keeping the higher-income tax cuts in place for now, said Carnahan, "doesn't mean you make them permanent."

Carnahan emphasized that once economic conditions improve, Congress and the federal government also need to be more focused on cutting costs, tackling the federal budget deficit and the long-term national debt.

NEA highlights political support for Carnahan

Carnahan's comments came after she had joined National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel for the tele-town hall, where teachers and other association members gathered at sites around the state to watch, listen and pose questions.

Carnahan, Van Roekel and Missouri NEA president Chris Guinther were based in a meeting room at UMSL that was converted into a broadcast studio.

Carnahan reaffirmed her view that the federal government should be part of a federal-state-local collaboration to improve public education, while offering support to students and teachers.

Too many politicians are wasting time bashing teachers instead of helping them, Carnahan said,

She said she agreed with many educators that the federal No Child Left Behind law had been an underfunded failure. The law has emphasized testing that critics say has forced teachers to "teach to the tests." Opponents say the law also unfairly punishs districts that failed to meet certain improvement standards regardless of circumstances.

Carnahan said that Blunt deserved part of the blame because he had voted for No Child Left Behind but also voted against the additional money that backers say was needed.

Blunt's campaign asserted that Carnahan's appearance with Van Roekel demonstrated that she was in lockstep with "NEA labor bosses."

" 'Card Check Robin' Carnahan is a 100 percent-er for NEA's highest priorities," the Blunt campaign said.

The Blunt camp cited the NEA's support for the federal stimulus spending, the federal health-care charges and the proposed "card check" measure that would allow workers to form a union without an election if at least half of the employees at a business sign cards in favor of representation.

Blunt is a former teacher and university president. However, he has received low ratings over the years from the NEA.

In an interview, Van Roekel cited as an example Blunt's vote against the latest federal measure that is sending $26 billion to the states to be used, in part, to help prevent teacher layoffs. Laying off teachers will make public education worse, not better, he said. The number of students will remain the same, "there will just be fewer teachers to teach them,'' Van Roekel said.

Van Roekel said Carnahan had been among the first U.S. Senate candidates endorsed by the NEA, because she was seen as best sharing teachers' concerns, and "we wanted to choose races where we believe we can have an impact."

Van Roekel encouraged teachers viewing Tuesday's tele-town hall to do their part to help Carnahan's campaign and promote her candidacy.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.