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Zweifel Sounds Alarm Bells Over Obama's Changes To 529 Plans

File photo by Marshall Griffin/St. Louis Public Radio

When President Barack Obama gave his State of the Union address earlier this week, reaction was pretty predictable: Most Democrats liked the speech, while Republicans were generally less favorable. 

But in the flurry of emailed statements from politicians that flooded reporters’ in boxes, one stood out: Missouri Treasurer Clint Zweifel, a Democrat, criticized part of the president’s proposal to streamline higher education incentives.

“I’m state treasurer for not just Democrats, but Democrats, Republicans and the entire state,” said Zweifel in a telephone interview Thursday. “As fiduciary for helping families save for college, I need to do everything I can to stand up for those families to help them save for their children’s future.”

At the center of it all are 529 plans, which are run by states and are aimed at helping parents save for college. The family of a child contributes money to the accounts and the investments aren’t taxed if they’re used to pay for certain higher-education expenses.

During his State of the Union speech, Obama proposed streamlining the federal government’s menu of education tax incentives — which could provide a student with up to $2,500 in annual aid for up to five years. But according to the Washington Post, the plan would mean that families “would no longer be able to withdraw earnings from 529 plans without paying taxes on them.”

Zweifel, who is responsible for administering Missouri’s 529 program, said Obama’s plan could make it much less desirable for families to open the accounts.

“That’s the power of a 529 — that tax free growth is very powerful,” Zweifel said. “There’s a state tax deduction for the contributions. But the most powerful part of this from the financial side of things is the fact that money can grow tax free. A small amount of contributions — $50 a month from the time your child is born until when they turn 18 — you’re talking about $18,000 with just a 5 percent return during that time period.”

“You’re talking about real, small investments making a bigger impact later on and tax free growth is a big part of that,” he added.

But Zweifel said the benefits of a 529 aren’t just monetary. He said the “simple presence of these accounts in a child’s and parent’s life is a very powerful motivating force for them.” He pointed to how KIPP charter school in St. Louis are opening up small 529 accounts for kindergarten students.

“It begins to open up a whole new world for families in terms of conversations about the power of education, what it means for opportunity, how small investments can make a big difference,” Zweifel said. “So, whether this account is enough to pay for a year of school, a semester or four years — there is real power in these accounts.”

Zweifel said other state treasurers from both political parties have expressed concern about Obama’s plan. But since Congress is controlled by Republicans, it’s unlikely that anything Obama proposes has a particularly good chance of making it to his desk.

So why speak out? Zweifel replied: “It’s important that we don’t lie down.”

“If a president mentions in his State of the Union that he’s interested in eliminating an incentive to help people save for college, I think you’ve got to take that seriously,” Zweifel said. “Immediately, when we saw that was going to be part of the plan, I think you do what you should as an advocate for savers — which is you stand up and say, ‘Listen, there’s probably another way to get there. And we’d like to help you find a better way to get to your goals without penalizing families that are trying to save for college.’ ”  

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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