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A better way to cut taxes

Grits has a suggestion for the Legislature.


Reduce local jail costs – which have been a big driver of tax increases in many Texas counties – by reducing penalty categories for low-level marijuana possession (currently a Class B misdemeanor for possession of two ounces or less) and driving with an invalid license (DWLI, currently a Class B misdemeanor on the second offense). Make those two offenses a Class C or even a civil violation and local governments, especially counties, would save money a) by writing tickets instead of jailing people, b) from the fact that attorneys aren’t appointed for the indigent in Class C cases, and c) by keeping more officers, both sheriffs deputies and municipal PDs, out on patrol instead of at the jail arresting pot smokers and drivers who couldn’t pay the Driver Responsibility surcharge.

Texas already started down this road, reducing first offense DWLI from a Class B to a Class C in 2007 after the Driver Responsibility surcharge flooded county courts in the first years after its passage. The same year, the Lege passed and Gov. Perry signed legislation to allow local police departments to write tickets instead of make arrests for DWLI, marijuana possession, and several other petty Class B offenses. Only a few agencies took the Lege up on that optional authority, though, and county jails and court dockets remain stuffed with these low-level, non-violent offenders. So reducing penalties for those two Class Bs is a logical next step, as the House County Affairs discussed during an interim committee hearing on the topic earlier this year.

Unlike the feds, Texas’ budget must balance. Any claim to cut taxes will prove a mare’s nest without a correspondent reduction in spending in a long-term sustainable way. That’s why property-tax relief through the school districts can’t be certain in light of the surely soon-to-be-coming court verdict on school finance. The state has little wiggle room to spend less on healthcare. And pols have promised to spend more, not less, on transportation. After baseline reductions in 2003 and 2011, there’s not a lot of fat left to cut, particularly that would impact property taxes.

By changing state policies to reduce county jail costs, the 84th Legislature could deliver real, not just temporary or superficial, local property-tax relief, cutting costs on a big-ticket item that affects every Texas county. I can’t think of a quicker, more certain way the Lege could reduce upward pressure on local property taxes given the practical constraints imposed by law and politics on the state budget.

See here for the context, and remember that “balancing” the budget is one part rhetoric, one part prestidigitation, and about five parts hot air. As sensible as this is, and as much as it would deliver benefits beyond a reduction in costs to counties, the main obstacle this would face is that it’s not immediate gratification. Lop ten points off the tax rate and you can say “See! I cut your taxes!” Do this and you have to wait and see what all the county commissioners do, and if/when they do cut taxes as a result of the savings, they’ll claim the credit for it themselves. I completely agree with Grits’ idea here, and I think in the abstract a lot of legislators would, too. What I don’t think they would do is see this as “tax relief” in any meaningful way. The people who are talking about that want something they can point to and take all the credit for.

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  1. Steve Houston says:

    Total jail costs, and this includes being the de facto mental health hospital for a huge portion of the population, comprise about 14% of county budgets. Changing the law to lower penalties for crimes is not going to greatly impact how much county residents pay any more than it will “reduce downward pressure” on such costs. This is just another bout of Grits’ wishful thinking on how to manipulate the teabaggers and GOP by catering to greed. As such, shaving limited portions of the jail population solely for economic benefit provides limited bang for the buck, though I actually agree with many of the policy positions on drugs (legalize pot and most other drugs but greatly enhance the penalties for committing crimes under their influence). As jail beds are opened up from one group, others will simply be given less of a break in how their time is factored, greatly reducing any savings.

    Aside from the problems of everyone wanting someone else to pay for all the government goodies or the crazy idea that you can get good government for next to nothing, most people really don’t know how their tax dollars are spent. When confronted with the actual cost of jailing criminals, everyone I spoke with was willing to pay a few bucks more to keep inmates incarcerated on a day for day program but I run in different circles than people like Grits.

  2. Ross says:

    How much could we save if we cut the jail populations by a third by making it easier to get out of jail while waiting for trial?

    We could also cut costs by paying realistic pensions to police and fire fighters, instead of the massively generous platinum plated versions we have now

  3. Steve Houston says:

    Ross, the underlying premise to saving money by liberalizing bonding is that counties will be able to hire fewer people to work in corrections. Taking your idea of a third fewer people all the way out, you won’t be saving anything of substance. The same facilities will be staffed by the same people using largely the same costs. This will only allow jails to require those convicted to stay more of their sentence with fewer multipliers applied to days served. I’m not saving it isn’t worthy of consideration, just that you won’t save money.

    As far as cutting pensions for employees, especially those you believe have “platinum plated” pensions, I’d like to hear who you think gets such a deal in the state of Texas outside the Governor, certain high ranking officials, and the occasional gadfly. Such pensions are so few and far between that eliminating them altogether won’t amount to much, clearly you fall into the group I mentioned in my first comment. Locally, HFD and HPD are the lowest compensated public safety employees for the entire state (in terms of major cities), Texas generally not very high ranking compared to other states where such employees get a far more lucrative pay and benefit package to begin with. The state has nothing to do with such plans in the first place so any cuts will not save the state any money but I suspect you knew that too.

  4. Ross says:

    I guess I Wasn’t clear that I was talking about county level taxes. Cutting the jail population by a third by letting those waiting for trial out on their own recognizance would be a good start there.

    Anyone who can retire at 55 with 30 years at 90% of their pay has a platinum plated pension. I believe that describes the HFD pension. If I were to retire at age 55 with 30 years at my job, I would have a company pension of 36%, and could collect social security at a reduced rate at age 62. And, my employer knows to the penny what my pension is.

  5. Steve Houston says:

    By using recognizance bonds to free up space, the resulting space would only then be used by inmates who were being given multiple days credit for each day served. I thought my comment was clear but maybe that will clear it up. The bottom line is that given the generous formulas used, even cutting massive numbers of pre-trial suspects free would still allow authorities to keep their budgets by making more people stay longer on the sentences they pled to or were handed.

    As far as pensions, by all means compare total direct compensation for those you believe are so well paid. Aside from the fact that HFD does not pay into Social Security and would not derive a benefit at any age, courtesy of the city opting out in the 80’s, their pay is substantially below that of other major cities and the private sector. Any larger percentage based on a smaller number is hardly a “deal” and the suggestion that the city doesn’t know what each employee has earned at any given time is a lie since they track all relevant numbers via payroll. The only number they don’t know for sure is the date an employee opts to retire. Now that HPD has received a few raises since pay parity was ended under Brown, they opted for a bigger paycheck up front, anyone employed in the past 10 years getting far less, staying longer, and paying more into their system but guess which pension is more fully funded? But if you went to your employer and offered to take a 40% pay cut and watered down benefits, he’d probably offer you a better pension too.