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Metro moves towards cashless fares (maybe)

We started with this.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority on Thursday will consider the first in a series of agreements to revamp its fare payment system that eventually could offer riders the option of using smartphones, credit cards and electronic wallets to hop aboard its buses and trains.

In a nod to the changing ways consumers use to pay for services, the transit agency is expected to spend nearly $100 million to remake its collection of bus and train fares for the next 15 years. That future could lead to cash being kicked off the bus as transit officials weigh whether to replace aging fareboxes.

Metro is among a handful of large American transit agencies giving some thought to how to reduce the number of riders tossing coins and convert them to tapping a card, which could help speed up bus trips.

“Metro would be in the first wave of agencies making this transition but won’t be doing it alone,” said Ben Fried, communications director for TransitCenter, a New York-based advocacy group.

The first step for Metro is a seven-year $37 million contract with INIT, Innovations in Transportation Inc., for new software and management of its fare collection system, including new validators — the cinder block-sized devices people tap with their Q cards.

Two-thirds of the initial cost, more than $24 million, would go toward equipping buses and installing computer systems in Metro offices to handle fares.

With the new gear will come new options for riders. Currently, riders can use Q cards, cash or Metro’s smartphone app to hop aboard.

The new machines will accept the current Q cards, along with such options as contactless credit cards that allow customers to pay by tapping a card reader and Apple Pay and Google Pay that store credit card info on mobile phones.

“The system will let us use mobile wallets,” said Denise Wendler, chief information officer for Metro. “It transitions very nicely with our old system and new opportunities.”

[…]

Many transit agencies are looking to reduce or avoid cash payments altogether for a variety of reasons, including speeding up transit and eliminating the cost of handling money.

“Boston has made cashless bus fare collection an explicit goal, and the (Metropolitan Transit Authority) in New York has eliminated cash payment on express buses, intimating that regular buses could go cashless in the next few years (the earliest would be 2023),” Fried said.

Paying cash typically takes a few seconds longer than tapping a Q card, with those seconds adding up along a route. The faster people can board, the faster the bus can get moving again — improving the efficiency of trips and getting people to their destinations faster.

Eliminating cash fares also could give transit agencies better use of bus space by allowing passengers to board at the front and rear doors. In Houston, Metro riders can only exit from the back door, but must enter in the front to tap their cards or pay cash.

San Francisco opened its buses and trains to all-door boarding in 2012, and checks fares now with fare inspectors, similar to Metro’s enforcement of light rail payments in Houston. A 2017 study showed San Francisco’s bus speeds increased 2 percent and ridership on buses increased 2 percent.

As the story notes, it would probably not be till 2022 when we see something like this happen. About twenty percent of Metro fares are paid in cash, so ensuring that those riders would not be left behind is a priority. The benefit for Metro is clear – better and more efficient boarding, which means buses can run on a more dependable schedule, which boosts service and ridership overall.

The story then got this reaction from Tory Gattis:


On the surface, this makes a lot of sense. Fare collection revenue is a very small part of Metro’s budget. Free fares would make boarding even more efficient, would certainly ensure that cash-paying riders are taken care of, would increase ridership further, and would free up capital for buying more buses. Seems like a win all around, right?

It appears that argument had an effect.

Metro on Thursday delayed consideration of a $37 million contract for a new fare system so transit officials can ponder how it would affect efforts to eliminate fares altogether for some riders.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority board of directors was scheduled to approve the seven-year agreement, but the item was pulled from the agenda in the morning, Chairwoman Carrin Patman said, “in light of the fact we are also doing a free fare study.”

The transit agency is researching options for eliminating fares, or eliminating them for certain groups of riders, such as schoolchildren and college students.

[…]

Though fares make up a small percentage of Metro’s budget — $67.6 million, or 11.1 percent, of its 2017 operating revenues, according to federal data — eliminating them entirely can be tricky. Transit agencies must follow federal laws, which require fares to be fair and equitable for all users, based on the type of service offered. Removing fees for bus or rail use likely would mean Metro also would have to remove fares on paratransit for disabled and elderly passengers, an increasingly costly part of the agency’s budget.

Eliminating fares also could complicate federal funding for major agency projects if officials in Washington worry that Houston is not bringing in enough money to share the costs of projects.

[…]

Though some transit agencies offer free rides in partnerships with schools or within certain fare-free zones to encourage bus use in urban areas, Chapel Hill, N.C., is the only large transit agency to entirely remove fares in the U.S. That transit system is heavily subsidized by the University of North Carolina, the main campus of which is in Chapel Hill. Several small systems in college towns offer free transit.

Free ride programs have faced ups and downs in other cities, with transit systems similar in size to Houston. Portland, Ore., offered free trips within a special zone for nearly 40 years and saw huge gains in transit ridership as a result. The free zone, however, also led to complaints of increased crime and vagrancy, and it made enforcing fares difficult in a larger region around the zone. Tri-Met, Portland’s transit agency, abolished the fare-free zone in 2012.

Metro Chair Patman said in this story that she had spoken to Gattis, and that the fare box contract would be taken up in December, after a free fare study had been conducted. I think Tory’s argument has merit, but I worry about the politics of it. If public transportation were completely fare-free, a significant portion of the population will come to see it as an entitlement, something that “poor people” get that “the rest of us” pay for with our taxes. Once that happens, there will be political pressure to cut funding for transit, since after all it only “benefits” a small number of people. Republican legislators in Texas are already scheming to siphon off city sales tax revenues. Don’t think for a minute that making Metro rides free wouldn’t increase their incentive to do that. And yes, I am fully aware that this is a factually inaccurate and morally bankrupt way of thinking about transit. But it’s there, and it will be even more there if we eliminate fares. Which is a shame, but this is the world we live in. We’ll see what the result of Metro’s study is.

Someone is opposing the Metro referendum

I suppose it was too optimistic to hope that the Metro referendum would not get any organized opposition.

Opponents of Metro’s $3.5 billion bond referendum have formed a political action committee to lead a grass-roots campaign to curtail what they say is wasteful spending by the regional transit agency.

“To ask for $3.5 billion is irresponsible,” said Bill Frazer, one of the organizers of the Responsible Houston PAC and a former Houston city controller candidate.

[…]

Opponents used the Post Oak project as the backdrop for their announcement Tuesday, noting that Metro is asking for money to build 75 miles of bus rapid transit in the region despite having nothing to show Houstonians are eager to hop aboard. Critics also noted Metro’s newest light rail lines have never delivered the ridership officials promised when they started construction and failed to build many of the things promised voters in 2003 — as they used the $640 million voters approved to build three rail lines and did not add the park and ride locations and increased bus service promised by the ballot item.

“Before we do another blank check, someone needs to hold someone accountable for the past,” said Wayne Dolcefino, a media consultant that helped organize Tuesday’s announcement.

With so many areas in need of improved street drainage, Frazer said transit officials should invest their money there — something he said is possible because Metro’s agreement with cities promises 25 percent of the transit sales tax for street and drainage projects. Nothing, Frazer said, prohibits Metro from spending more than a quarter of the money for streets.

Note that “organized” does not mean “coherent”, or “logical”, or “sensible”. Last I checked, Houston already had a funding system in place for street and drainage improvement, which as I recall from his campaigns for Controller Bill Frazer opposed. Drainage is certainly a vital thing, but it doesn’t improve mobility. I’m also old enough to remember the 2012 election, in which there was a referendum that not only reaffirmed Metro’s one quarter share of the transit sales tax, it granted Metro a full share of the revenue growth on top of what was then being collected. The rest of this is largely unsupported claptrap, which will appeal to the kind of person who thinks any of this makes sense, and nobody else. I’ll be sure to look for their 30-day and 8-day finance reports.

The tax swap is dead

For this session, at least. Most likely, barring anything strange.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, the top public education leader in the Texas House, postponed two items of legislation Tuesday that would pay for long-term, ongoing school district tax cuts by raising sales taxes — effectively killing any chance of passing the legislation this year.

Huberty tabled until 2021 — the next legislative session — House Joint Resolution 3 and the accompanying House Bill 4621, which would ask voters to increase the state sales tax by one penny to buy down school district property taxes. The Houston Republican’s move came the day after the Senate, headed by a lieutenant governor who had endorsed the proposal, stripped such a provision from its version of the school finance bill in what was perhaps a signal that the measure would be dead in the upper chamber anyway.

Despite Tuesday’s postponement, the idea could still be revived this session; lawmakers could use a different bill as a vehicle to fund school district tax cuts.

Huberty criticized members of the Senate on Tuesday who “have spent their whole careers calling for property tax relief” but did not vote for the school finance measure the day before. And he repeatedly affirmed questions by House colleagues that suggested state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who leads the upper chamber’s property tax committee, had failed to take responsibility for coming up with a viable mechanism for property tax cuts when he was part of a school finance commission last year and during the current legislative session.

Bettencourt has arguably been the most vocal GOP senator opposed to the tax swap proposal, a position that has caught some by surprise since he’s closely aligned — both personally and professionally — with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made clear he supports the measure. Bettencourt marked himself “present, not voting” on the school finance bill Monday, while the majority of the upper chamber approved the legislation. And on Tuesday morning, ahead of business in both chambers, Bettencourt took to Facebook to once again reiterate his opposition to the tax swap, saying there is “simply no need to raise taxes even higher.”

In response to House members’ criticisms, Bettencourt said he’s long been clear about his concern that the tax swap proposal could amount to a tax increase. When Huberty proposed that the tax swap devote 80% of the new sales tax revenue to property tax cuts and the remainder to public school funding, for example, “I immediately red-flagged that,” Bettencourt said.

“Emotions run high when bills fail,” Bettencourt said. “If you have the votes, pass your bill — don’t blame somebody in the other chamber. That’s just kind of a rule that I’ve learned.”

[…]

On Tuesday morning, before the House gaveled in for the day, Bonnen told House Republicans during a caucus meeting that there would be no point in bringing up the proposal for a vote in the lower chamber if it was considered dead in the Senate, according to multiple people who were at the gathering. Caucus members at the meeting, according to those sources, largely agreed with Bonnen, who said the Senate stripping such a provision from its version of the school finance bill Monday suggested the upper chamber couldn’t muster enough support to approve a tax swap proposal.

After Huberty postponed the tax swap legislation, a Bonnen spokesperson said in a statement that the proposal had been “an opportunity for lawmakers to further reduce property taxes” and sustain tax relief found in the lower chamber’s school finance bill.

“Speaker Bonnen believes it is in the House’s best interest to devote the limited time left in session to our Day One priorities — passing legislation to provide meaningful school finance and property tax reform for all Texans,” the statement read.

See here for some background. To an extent, I agree with Bettencourt, in that a sales tax increase is a terrible idea. Of course, Bettencourt sees no need to pay for tax cuts. He just wants to cut them, and nothing else really matters as far as he’s concerned. The tax swap is a terrible idea that deserved to die, but at least Huberty was trying to pay for what he wanted to do. What happens next, with school finance and everything else, we’ll see.

Where goes the tax swap plan from here?

We start with the double down.

Showing their usual united front, the state’s “Big Three” political leaders on Friday tried to remake their case for why the Texas Legislature should deliver on long-term, ongoing property tax relief before the session wraps up this month.

They also expressed confidence that they would get the work done — even as House Democrats said they appeared to have the votes to block the lower chamber’s current main vehicle to provide the biggest property tax cut.

“Our goal is really simple: We’re going beyond the point of hoping to reform property taxes to the point where we’re hoping to to deliver true property tax relief through property tax reductions,” Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Capitol press conference Friday afternoon, flanked by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, the Republican leaders of the Senate and House, respectively.

The three reaffirmed their commitment to a proposal that would increase the state sales tax one percentage point, raising about $5 billion per year to lower school district tax rates — which many have seen as a long shot from the start, with lawmakers from both parties skeptical about a sales tax hike.

The proposal has been moving through the Capitol so far in the form of a joint resolution, which needs two-thirds of each chamber to pass — at least 100 votes to pass the House and 21 votes to pass the Senate. If it passed both chambers, the proposal would then land on the November ballot for voters to decide, which leaders in support of the resolution have framed as a more democratic process.

House Joint Resolution 3 — which would ask voters to approve the sales tax swap for property tax relief — and its enabling legislation, House Bill 4621, passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday. The tax swap is expected to head to the lower chamber for a debate Tuesday.

The original version of the bill would have used 20% of the increased sales tax revenue to fund schools and 80% for property tax relief. That changed earlier this week, when state Rep. Dan Huberty, a Houston Republican who authored the legislation, tweaked the proposal to instead funnel all new sales tax dollars into property tax relief.

The move seemed to be an effort to bring on some of the Legislature’s more conservative members who had signaled they could be on board with a proposal if the new revenue was entirely dedicated to property tax relief. But it also seemed to solidify Democrats’ opposition to it, especially since the sales tax is regressive, meaning it takes a higher percentage of income from poorer people than richer people. A sales tax swap would raise taxes overall for Texas households earning less than $100,000 and would bring tax relief for households above $100,000.

State Rep. Chris Turner, who chairs his House Democratic Caucus, told The Texas Tribune that there are more than 60 “hard no” votes from Democrats against the proposal. If that opposition sticks for Tuesday’s expected vote on House Joint Resolution 3, its chances of passing the lower chamber would seem unlikely.

Patrick said he hoped both chambers would be able to get the needed two-thirds approval for the joint resolution from each chamber, but indicated he was open to getting it passed in different ways, exclaiming, “If it doesn’t, we’ll make it happen anyway!”

Sure, Dan. If you want to know why some of us are so skeptical of this, while plutocrats like Dan Patrick love it, consider this.

The state-run Legislative Budget Board estimated that the top 40% of wealthiest Texas households would see enough property tax savings to offset their increased sales tax payments in fiscal 2021. The bottom 60% of Texas households would pay more in taxes overall.

Households that make less than $99,619 would pay a total of $171 million more in taxes under the tax swap. Households that make more than that would pay a total of $424 million less in taxes, according to the analysis.

The disparity is because poor Texans tend to spend a greater portion of their money on taxable items.

The bottom fifth of Texas household incomes — those with incomes less than $37,630 — spend about 7.3% of their income on state sales tax while households in the top fifth of incomes — those with incomes of $149,453 and more — spend 1.6% of their income on state sales tax, according to the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Of course, we’ve known this forever, but the same bad idea crops up every few years and gets beaten down by the club of the same evidence. So we go through the motions. You can catch up on reading about this at various locations – the DMN, the Chron, Better Texas Blog with a handy chart – but be sure to read the analyses of the politics of this by Ross Ramsey and Scott Braddock. The reason the Big Three are putting on such a show of bravado is because they’re holding an eight-high hand in a game of five card stud, and they know it. And as Braddock notes on Twitter, so do members of the Lege.

Which may be why in the end, we got this.

The Texas Senate on Monday approved a bill to massively overhaul public school finance, but did so while backing away from a proposal to use an increased sales tax to lower school district property taxes.

After an hours-long debate on dozens of proposed changes, the Senate voted 26-2 on House Bill 3, which under the version passed by the upper chamber would increase student funding, give teachers and librarians a $5,000 pay raise, fund full-day pre-K for low-income students, and lower tax bills.

The House and Senate will have to negotiate their significant differences over the bill — including how to offer teacher pay raises and property tax relief — in a conference committee before it can be signed into law.

“When you’re doing something as complex as this, there’s going to be something you don’t like,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the bill’s author, anticipating tension throughout the day’s debate.

[…]

Taylor stripped the [sales tax] increase from HB 3 and offloaded some of the more expensive property tax relief provisions in the bill. The bill no longer includes an expansion in the homestead exemption from school district taxes. It lowers property tax rates by 10 cents per $100 valuation, instead of 15 cents, saving the owner of a $250,000 home $250 instead of $375.

The legislation would still limit the growth in school districts’ revenue due to rising property values, a proposal pitched before session began by the governor. School districts that see their property values significantly increase would have their tax rates automatically reduced to keep tax revenue growth in line. That would now start next year, instead of in 2023.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” Taylor said.

Instead, the bill creates a separate “Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund” to fund school district tax relief. State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, said a working group came up with a plan to get $3 billion from several sources, including the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and an online sales tax.

“This does not increase any taxes of any kind,” he said.

So does this mean that the tax swap is dead? Well…

In for a penny, in for a million pounds, I guess. Have fun taking that vote, Republicans.

More action on the school finance/property tax front

From Tuesday:

Rep. Dan Huberty

The Texas House gave preliminary approval to a priority property tax reform package Tuesday, teeing it up for negotiations with the Senate and impelling the upper chamber to act on an omnibus school finance measure.

Together, the education and tax overhaul bills have been the top policy issues of the 2019 legislative session, and they are ultimately expected to be ironed out behind the scenes — and perhaps simultaneously.

Tuesday’s vote marks a small milestone for House leadership, which has muscled its must-pass budget, public education and tax reform bills to passage, all before the last month of session begins. But the House and Senate will next need to reconcile notable differences among the three measures, and the upper chamber has yet to move the school finance bill out of committee.

“We have done our job in the House — and we have sent everything over to the Senate,” said state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, author of the school finance bill.

Senate Bill 2 was approved on a 107-40 margin after a half-dozen hours of debate. More than 20 Democratic lawmakers broke party ranks to support the measure, which has garnered adamant opposition from city and county officials since its introduction.

See here for the previous update. The House version of SB2 makes it contingent on the House version of school finance reform passing, namely HB3. The Senate started that process yesterday.

The Senate Education Committee held a hastily arranged hearing Wednesday morning to vote out comprehensive school finance reform legislation — accelerating the bill’s journey to the Senate floor and eventual negotiations with the lower chamber.

The fast-tracked revision and vote on House Bill 3 came the day after House lawmakers voted through a property tax reform bill, making it contingent on school finance reform passing this session. State Sen. Larry Taylor, the Senate Education Committee’s chair, had originally told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday he did not anticipate a committee vote on school finance until Thursday or next week.

The full Senate is now expected to vote Friday on the legislation, which aims to increase the base funding for each Texas student, increase teacher pay, provide money for full-day preK for low-income students, and allow for long-term property tax relief.

Many details of the bill still need to be ironed out, however, and committee members voted Wednesday without an official analysis of how their districts would fare financially. Still, the vote seemed to address concerns that the Senate was moving too slowly on school finance.

[…]

Senate Education Committee members voted out a version of the school finance legislation that differs in many ways from the version the House voted out in early April. It includes a $5,000 across-the-board raise for full-time classroom teachers and librarians, funding for districts that want to pay higher-rated teachers more, money for districts with better student academic outcomes, and a few different long-term property tax relief proposals.

The House’s version of the bill requires districts to use a portion of their additional base funding per student on raises for all school employees and designates extra money for raises to be given at districts’ discretion. It lowers school tax rates by 4 cents per $100 valuation — $100 off a tax bill for the owner of a $250,000 home — and lowers rates further for districts taxing higher. But it doesn’t include a proposal for long-term, ongoing tax relief.

As we know, the Republican plan to pay for property tax “relief” is raising the sales tax. That would require a constitutional amendment, and for the House version of the joint resolution to be voted out of committee by next Tuesday at 11:59 PM. As you know, I think that’s a terrible idea and am rooting for it to fail. The clock is ticking, but at least by next Tuesday we’ll know what parameters the conference committees will have to work with.

One more thing, from the first story:

Few attempts to make major changes to the bill were successful Tuesday.

One amendment, from state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, seems to bar anyone but licensed attorneys from representing taxpayers in the property tax appeal process on a contingency fee basis. The change would likely affect the author of SB 2, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Houston Republican and a property tax consultant.

“It affects a lot of people. We’ll talk about it in conference,” Geren said. He added, “I don’t believe in contingency fees, but if we have to have contingency fees to do this, then I want the lawyers to do that.”

Heh. Someone please give Charlie Geren a fist bump for me. The Chron has more.

School finance and property tax update

From last week.

Rep. Dustin Burrows

Blasting the Senate for taking a symbolic approach on school district taxes, a panel of House lawmakers heavily altered then approved the upper chamber’s version of priority property tax legislation late Thursday. And committee members pointedly included a provision meant to rebut claims that they were not committed to wholesale reform.

The chair of the tax-writing Ways and Means committee, state Rep. Dustin Burrows, said the House had kept a provision in Senate Bill 2 that attempts to constrain school district property taxes. While he and finance experts have said the language needs to be addressed in the Education Code, there “is an intent in the Senate to symbolically express that they are committed to lowering school property taxes,” Burrows said.

“Well, because of that, I want to make sure that the House also expresses its full commitment to lowering people’s property tax bills related to schools,” the Lubbock Republican said.

The Senate had tried to limit schools’ tax rate increases to 2.5%, without an election.

“We actually used a 2.0 number,” Burrows said, “to show that the House is equally as committed to doing significant things this session for the property taxpayers of the state of Texas.”

The insertion of the 2.0 figure may be a dig at hardline conservatives and Senate lawmakers, who have suggested the House gutted its own property tax reform package when they removed school district language from it in March. The lower chamber’s approach, however, has earned the backing of experts who say a separate public education bill is the most feasible way to make changes to the school finance system.

“To do property tax reform for schools, you really have to do it in the Education Code. I think that all of the experts agree,” Burrows said. “This bill has never touched the Education Code. It can’t touch the Education Code, that is House Bill 3,” he said, referencing the lower chamber’s omnibus school finance package.

As adopted in a 8-3 vote Thursday, SB 2 now closely resembles House Bill 2, a companion measure passed by the House committee last month — even taking on the same name: The Texas Taxpayer Transparency Act. The Democratic vice chair of the committee, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, joined Republicans in support of SB 2’s passage Thursday.

In the latest version of the bill:

  • Cities, counties and emergency service districts must hold an election if they wish to raise 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year
  • Those entities can increase their property tax levies by $500,000 a year, without triggering an election
  • Other taxing units — namely, hospital districts and community colleges — remain at an 8% election trigger, with Burrows’ citing the inflation of medical and education expenses
  • Homestead exemptions offered by local municipalities can be factored into the revenue growth calculation, preventing cities and counties from being penalized if they offer their residents tax reductions
  • A five-year carry-over provision lets taxing units bank unused revenue growth

[…]

A final change Thursday makes passage of SB 2 contingent on HB 3’s approval.

“These two are tied together,” Burrows said.

See here for more about HB3, and here for more on SB2. Ross Ramsey gets into the politics of the moment, which includes the Republican leadership’s continuing fealty to the property tax for sales tax swap that isn’t going anywhere. It’s hard to compare, because each session is its own story, but it sure feels to me like not a whole lot has happened so far, with less than five weeks to go. The big ticket items dragging along and seeming to go nowhere isn’t unusual, but what else has even made it to the floor of the other chamber? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I’m just curious. Word is that SB2 will be up in the House today, so we’ll see how it goes. There’s still a wide range of possible outcomes.

Yes, they really are now pushing a sales tax for property tax swap

Some bad ideas never die.

Texas’ top three political leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — threw their support Wednesday behind a proposal to increase the sales tax by one percentage point in order to lower property taxes across the state.

But that’s only if lawmakers agree to limit future local property tax increases.

The proposal would raise the state’s sales tax from 6.25% to 7.25%, generating billions of additional dollars annually for property tax relief, if voters approve a constitutional amendment. But the idea will be a hard sell to Democrats, since the sales tax is considered regressive, meaning lower-income Texans end up paying a larger percentage of their paychecks than higher-income Texans.

“Today we are introducing a sales tax proposal to buy down property tax rates for all Texas homeowners and businesses, once Senate Bill 2 or House Bill 2 is agreed to and passed by both Chambers. If the one-cent increase in the sales tax passes, it will result in billions of dollars in revenue to help drive down property taxes in the short and long term,” said a joint statement from the three Republicans.

Neither chamber has passed HB 2 or SB 2, which would require voter approval of property tax increases over 2.5%.

The House Ways and Means Committee was scheduled to take public testimony on the House’s sales tax swap proposal this week but delayed hearing the bills. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, who authored House Joint Resolution 3 and House Bill 4621, is considering changing the legislation to use a fraction of the additional money generated by the sales tax for public schools — in order to get more Democrats on board.

The bills are intended to provide another revenue source to help significantly cut down local school property taxes, which make up more than half of the local property taxes levied in Texas.

If the Legislature approves the resolution, the constitutional amendment would go to voters to approve in November, and if voters sign on the tax rate change would apply in January 2020.

See here for the background and my opinion about this lousy idea. Given that a constitutional amendment is needed for this, it will be easy enough to prevent it from happening. The progressive case against swapping out property taxes, which will disproportionately benefit commercial real estate and wealthy homeowners, for regressive sales taxes, is clear cut, and likely to hold a lot of sway with the current Democratic caucus. There’s also polling evidence to suggest that the public doesn’t care for a sales tax increase. I’m a little skeptical of that, since the question was not asked in conjunction with a potential cut in property taxes, but that’s an argument for the Republicans to make, and given the baked in doubt about anything actually reducing property taxes (for good reason!), I’d take that bet. HB2 is up for debate today, so we’ll see how this goes. The Chron and Texas Monthly have more.

Inevitably, we come back to a sales tax/property tax swap

It’s an idea we just can’t seem to quit.

Texas lawmakers are considering an infusion of $9 billion to improve public schools and lower property taxes over the next two years. The additional $6.3 billion in the classroom is being billed as a transformational effort to better educate the state’s 5.4 million students, while another $2.7 billion would stem the tide of escalating property taxes for homeowners.

“If we’re going to make some strides on these really big items, it really has to happen this session,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, chairman of the influential Appropriations Committee.

While lawmakers are confident the state’s booming economy will provide big bucks to spend on public schools, they are also pitching a number of plans to increase the state sales tax in the future. The proposals include hiking taxes on items such as sweet snacks, gasoline, e-cigarette fluid and heavy machinery rentals. But the proposal with the most apparent momentum is a tax swap that would allow local governments to charge a higher sales tax in exchange for reducing property tax levies.

Even raising the sales tax by one percent “contributes a lot of money” that school districts, cities and counties could use to offset reductions in property tax revenue, Zerwas said. Some estimates predict such an increase would raise more than $5 billion a year. The statewide sales tax rate is now 6.25 percent a year. Local governments can add up to two percent.

Although Republicans are leading the charge with major tax swap proposals, it’s unclear how they will fare in the GOP-led House and Senate, particularly among lawmakers who narrowly won their reelections as Texas Democrats gain ground.

Financial implications of the bills are shaky. Several tax bills were filed a week ago, just under a deadline, and have yet to be analyzed by the Legislative Budget Board which predicts financial effects.

Increasing reliance on the sales tax troubles Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget and policy expert with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. Not only is a sales tax considered regressive for taking more money from low-income people than the rich, but its collections are more susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy, she said.

“You need to find a revenue source that doesn’t all the sudden tank on you. Or if you know that it is going to do that, you need to put most of it away for a rainy day and use it when that rainy day comes,” she said.

[…]

Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, is proposing Texas increase taxes on gasoline and close tax exemptions on items like ice cream, certain baked goods, e-cigarette vapor fluid and over-the-counter medicine.

“I don’t think people realize their ibuprofen is tax-free,” said Springer. In exchange, House Bill 2915 would allow the state to lower the maintenance and operations property tax that funds schools. His bill would also increase the homestead exemption to 50 percent of a home’s value. Texans in a home valued at $274,000 would average $1,400 a year in property tax relief, he said, amounting to $6.2 billion less in property tax collections statewide.

Another bill, House Joint Resolution 3, proposes inching up the sales tax and using money from that increase exclusively for public schools. The resolution is proposed by Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, the architect of the House’s $9 billion school finance plan. The measure would require a vote in November to change the state Constitution and increase the statewide sales tax, which is now 6.25 percent. Huberty emphasized that raising the sales tax is just one measure under consideration, and that it’s still too early to pencil in numbers.

“We have to put more money into the system. It’s our responsibility,” Huberty said Thursday at an event hosted by the Texas Tribune.

Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie is proposing the state systematically examine each tax exemption every six years to decide whether it is needed. House Bill 3968 will raise revenue by expiring out-of-date tax “loopholes” over time, he said, and is a good alternative to raising sales taxes.

“It is important to note that Texas already has a high sales tax — 8.25 percent in most areas,” said Turner, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus. “The lower someone’s income, the more it hurts, so an increase in the sales tax will hurt a lot of Texas families.”

This comes up every few years – in 2005, in 2007, in the 2012 and 2014 elections – and each time we confront the fact that swapping property taxes for sales taxes greatly benefits property owners while burdening lower income folks the most. That’s a feature and not a bug, as far as its Republican advocates are concerned. I appreciate that at least this time it’s being proposed in the context of putting more money into schools, which would then have the effect of easing the pressure on local property taxes, but the same problem remains. Rep. Turner’s proposal to evaluate tax breaks also comes up whenever sales-tax-increase bills are filed, and it usually gets quietly ignored as the higher-profile swap bills eventually die. It’s still a good idea, it just never gets any momentum behind it. Rep. Springer’s idea to expand the sales tax to more things also comes up in conjunction with swap bills, and there is merit to this approach as well, though the real money is in taxing services, which is pretty much as big a taboo as an income tax is.

To review: I support requiring a process to scrutinize and sunset every tax break we have on the books, and I support at least exploring the imposition of a sales tax on selected goods and services where it is not currently imposed. If the goal of that is to put more state money into public education, and one result is that it allows local governments to ease up on property tax collections because they are no longer trying to make up for the state’s inadequacies, I would consider that a good outcome. The Trib has more.

SCOTUS and sales taxes

This ruling will be good for Texas.

Texas stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that states may force online retailers to collect sales tax even when they have no physical presence in the state.

Every year, Texas loses $1.1 billion in uncollected sales tax, according to the Texas comptroller’s office — well over the $800 million the state will spend securing its southern border this year and next. That’s the result of the high court’s 1992 decision, now reversed, that retailers are responsible for collecting sales tax only in states where they had “nexus.” That decision — which predated the astronomical rise of the internet and the subsequent boom in online shopping — was outdated, argued lawyers for the state of South Dakota, who won the case this week.

That lost tax revenue is particularly meaningful in Texas, one of just a handful of states without a personal income tax. This May, for example, the state’s sales tax revenue totaled $2.76 billion.

[…]

Customers themselves owe sales tax on their purchases, but it’s sellers who are required to collect that money and send it to the government. States have little mechanism — and little incentive — to chase down sales tax on small-ticket purchases from average consumers when the retailers don’t do it themselves. Some of Texas’ largest online retailers — Amazon, for example — already remit sales tax to the state. Amazon has almost a dozen distribution centers in the state.

Texas is highly unlikely to gain back all of the $1.1 billion it’s currently losing, experts said, and any money the state gets back won’t come overnight. While the Texas comptroller has a great deal of taxing authority, some changes to the state’s tax structure might have to be carried out by the Legislature when it reconvenes in 2019, said Dale Craymer, the president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. The Comptroller’s office is looking into that, a spokesman said.

“We welcome the court’s ruling in this case and are currently assessing any potential revenue impacts,” said Kevin Lyons, a spokesman for the agency.

I have long believed that the sales tax exemption for online purchases outlived its purpose years ago. This is not just for states like Texas but also for local governments that rely on sales tax revenue, and for traditional retailers who are no longer at an automatic disadvantage. Sales tax rates vary by locality, and not all items are subject to sales taxes, so this will be a challenge to set up, but that’s not our problem. Online retailers will figure it out, and life will go on. This was the right decision.

From the “Nothin’ but good times ahead” department

Given the good economic conditions in Texas right now, you’d think the budget outlook would be better than it is.

The Texas economy is growing healthily, but that doesn’t mean state budget writers will have more money at their disposal next year, state officials said Tuesday.

In fact, though unemployment is low and tax revenue is on the rise, big bills coming due for the state’s highways and health care programs are giving Texas lawmakers reason for concern.

“I would like to offer a few words of caution for reading too much into the positive recent economic numbers,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told lawmakers at a Senate Finance Committee hearing.

As they often do, state budget writers last year underfunded Medicaid, the federal-state insurance program for the poor and disabled, which, alongside public education, makes up one of the largest shares of the state’s $217 billion two-year budget.

Then, during a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott over the summer, state lawmakers shifted another $500 million away from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to pay for public education programs.

As a result, lawmakers could face a $2.5 billion Medicaid bill shortly after they reconvene in Austin in 2019. Then there are the additional drains on Texas coffers from Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts, Hegar said.

That’s bad news for lawmakers given the comptroller’s prediction that the state will only have a $94 million “beginning balance” when lawmakers convene in 2019. By comparison, lawmakers had an $880 million beginning balance in 2017, which was ultimately a tight year for the state budget. Two years before that, lawmakers enjoyed a $7.3 billion beginning balance.

[…]

Another source of heartburn for budget writers is the ravenous state highway fund. In 2015, amid complaints of a highway system in disrepair, Texans voted to amend the state Constitution to require that up to $2.5 billion in sales tax revenue be dedicated to the highway fund.

That means that even as Texas collects more money from sales taxes — Hegar testified that sales tax revenue grew by an average of 10.3 percent over the last three months — the rest of the state budget will not benefit from that revenue since it is earmarked for the highway fund.

That was also an issue for budget writers in 2017. Last year, in order to free up some of that money for other purposes, Senate lawmakers pushed for an accounting trick that delayed a payment to the state highway fund into the next two-year budget cycle. That freed up about $1.6 billion for lawmakers last year, but it means there will be another bill to pay in 2019.

“In short, despite a strong economy and positive outlook for revenue growth in this biennium, it seems likely the next budget will be much like the one crafted in 2017, having to contend with restricted revenue relative to the spending trends of the state,” Hegar said.

Just a reminder: Underfunding Medicaid was a choice. Shifting money away from HHSC was a choice. The amendment to require all that highway spending was ratified by the voters, but it was there to be ratified because the Lege chose to put it there. Deferring that payment to the highway fund was a choice. And though the story doesn’t include it in its litany, spending nearly a billion dollars on boondoggle “border security” stunts was a choice, too.

We’ll probably be fine in the 2019 session, though the potential for shenanigans is always high. But remember, winter is coming, because it always does. When it does, we’re going to have a mess to clean up, one that was caused by the Republicans in charge of our state, one that could have been mitigated in many ways. I hope we’re ready for it.

(Note: This is the inspiration for the post title.)

State of the County 2017: Ed Emmett versus state leadership

That sound you heard was a fight breaking out.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday used his annual State of the County speech to blast state leaders who he said attack local governments and seek to cut needed taxes but offer no real solutions to the myriad problems Texas’ large urban counties face.

Before a crowd of hundreds at NRG Center, Emmett called on state officials to invest roughly $500 million in a third reservoir and dam to boost area flood control efforts, fund a beleaguered indigent health care system, and revamp “broken” tax policies that force the county to rely on property taxes to serve an unincorporated area that, on its own, would be the fifth-largest city in the country.

In addition to helping with the county’s flood control efforts, Emmett called on the state to contribute more for mental health care and transportation improvements, citing the need for an Interstate 69 bypass on the east side of the county and renewed emphasis on railroads and technology to move freight from area ports.

He also reiterated his call for state leaders to accept increased Medicaid funding from Washington.

“The next time a state official makes a big deal about a fraction of a cent cut in the property tax rate, ask them why they won’t help Harris County property taxpayers fund indigent health care,” the judge said. “State leaders who are eager to seek for disaster relief should also be willing to accept federal dollars to provide health care for poor people. That would be real property tax relief.”

The state, he said, should treat the county more like a city, which by law can levy a sales tax and pass ordinances. The county is an arm of state government and relies on property taxes for most of its revenue.

“The whole point of today’s speech was to say ‘enough is enough,'” Emmett said afterward. “We need to be able to provide the services and the government that people expect in an unincorporated area.”

[…]

Emmett criticized the bills that would have forced the county to get voter approval on taxes and spending.

“Such a populist approach might sound reasonable, but the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who nobody ever accused of being a liberal, described direct referenda as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues'” he said.

He also lit into lawmakers’ attempts to limit property tax collections during the last legislative session, saying leaders “attacked counties and cities and other local governments, all the while offering no real solutions.”

“County government relies almost completely on property tax revenue, but the property tax is widely hated, and wholly inadequate as a means of financing the unique urban government that we have. Unfortunately, narrow-minded politics has pushed unfunded mandates from the state onto county government,” Emmett said.

“It is just pure ugly politics. And, by the way, the portion of county taxes paid by business is, I don’t need to tell the business community in this room, growing. We are reaching the point where tax policies are a drag on economic development.”

You can read the whole speech here. Most of the criticisms Emmett made about state leadership and recent political actions are in the story, but the whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and he was introduced by outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, which was a further provocation. Like the useless demagogues they are, Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt responded petulantly in the story. This is another skirmish in the culture wars of the Republican Party, and Republicans who are in the Ed Emmett/Joe Straus camp – including Emmett himself – are going to have to decide next year if they really want the likes of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick dictating to them. A vote for the status quo is a vote for four more years of the things that Emmett was railing against in his speech.

Emmett calls for changes to county’s flood strategy

Good to see.

Judge Ed Emmett

Calling Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastation a “game-changer,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday called for a sweeping reexamination of the region’s flood control strategy, a process that could include billions of dollars to upgrade aging dams, building a new storm water reservoir and ramping up regulations to tamp down booming development in flood-prone areas.

The set of options outlined by Emmett on Monday, if implemented, would be the biggest change in decades to how the Houston region protects against its perennial rains and floods. Emmett said everything would be on the table, including large-scale buyouts, banding with surrounding counties to create a regional flood control district and seeking authority from the state to levy a sales tax to pay for what likely would be a massive initiative.

Emmett, a Republican who has served as county judge since 2007 and largely is seen as a pragmatist, likened the changes to a post-flood push in the 1930s that led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and the construction of the Addicks and Barker dams on the city’s west side, which today protect thousands of homes of homes, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“We can’t continue to say these are anomalies,” Emmett said. “You’ve got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal, so how are we going to react to it?'”

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and frequent critic of Harris County’s flood control strategy, was encouraged after hearing Emmett’s comments Monday.

“This is the single best piece of news I have heard post-Harvey from any elected official,” said Blackburn, who has sued the county on several occasions and co-directs Rice University’s center on Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters. “I would like to hear every one of them say that.”

[…]

Included in the options Emmett outlined Monday were buyouts, not just of individual homes, but whole tracts of land. He said a wish-list of homes that are not already being targeted by projects, such as the upgrades on Brays Bayou, could cost $2.5 billion.

A regional flood control district could be modeled after the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, created in 1975 to oversee the conversion from well water to surface water after sinking ground alarmed residents and public officials.

Emmett said given the repetitive flooding, the 100-year standard the county uses to design projects and regulate development, would need to be reexamined.

“We basically had three 500-year events in two years,’ he said.

An additional reservoir and a levee in the northwest part of the county to back floodwaters from Cypress Creek – both part of the options Emmett outlined – had been part of an original U.S. Army Corps plan when it built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Those projects failed to materialize, however, and land costs became prohibitive as people moved in.

As we now know, this includes a bond issue of up to $1 billion. On top of that, Commissioners Court has filed an application with FEMA to buy out some houses in high risk areas. Emmett has also mentioned federal funds for some projects, which state officials are also seeking, reallocating the county budget to put more of an emphasis on flood mitigation, and maybe asking the Lege to provide another revenue stream such as a sales tax. Some of this may now be mooted by the bond issue, and some of it may be discarded for lack of support. The important thing is to get the conversation started, so kudos to the county for that.

The “border adjustment tax” is a sales tax increase by another name

That’s a feature, not a bug.

Retailers across Texas and the country are warning that a proposed border adjustment tax would increase the cost of imports and, by extension, the price of food, clothing and other consumer goods. Texas companies, including Stage Stores of Houston and Neiman Marcus of Dallas, have joined more than 150 other U.S. firms in a coalition fighting a possible border tax, part of a broader tax overhaul championed by Rep. Kevin Brady, The Woodlands Republican who chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.

The plan essentially proposes a 20 percent tax on imports, which the National Retail Federation, a trade group, expects would raise the price of consumer products by 15 percent. Randi Sonenshein, senior vice president of strategy and finance for Stage Stores, which has more than 800 locations in 38 states, said her company worries that the higher prices related to the tax would particularly hurt customers who shop at stores located in small and mid-size towns, where it primarily operates.

“The plan will have a disproportionately negative impact on retailers,” she said. “It’s a tough thing to contemplate.”

Border adjustment is one component of a tax plan that aims to shift the U.S. tax code toward favoring production of goods over their consumption. Under the plan, companies would lose deductions for the costs of importing goods; at the same time, sales revenues from goods they export would be exempt from corporate income taxes.

[…]

Companies with significant sales in foreign countries, including aerospace manufacturer Boeing, the industrial conglomerate General Electric, chemical maker Dow Chemical and pharmaceutical maker Pfizer, support the plan. But critics of border taxes say U.S. consumers will ultimately pay more, with the costs borne disproportionately by low- and middle income households.

If a border tax was enacted, apparel, autos, furniture and electronics equipment – much of which is imported – would see some of the largest price increases, at least initially, according to a recent analysis by the Wall Street investment bank Goldman Sachs. The National Retail Federation expects the cost of clothing, for example, would rise at least $350 a year for an average consumer.

Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, as well as trade groups such as the U.S. Fashion Industry Association and the Association of Global Automakers, have joined the coalition against the plan, called Americans for Affordable Products.

The Texas Retailers Association, which represents companies of all sizes in every retail sector except convenience stores, has followed suit. George Kelemen, the association’s president and CEO, said every retail business in the state would be affected by the proposal in some way. In addition to clothing and other manufactured goods, food grown outside the United States, including everyday groceries, such as avocados, bananas and coffee would become pricier, he said.

“We are opposed to this,” he said. “It’s a cost passed on to the consumer.”

The real point of this is that once this is implemented, you – and by “you” I mean “Republicans” – can cut taxes elsewhere, which is always the goal. In that sense, it’s like the Craddick-era proposals to hike the state sales tax in return for a property tax cut. Dan Patrick would do that today if he thought he had the votes for it. I’m sure you can guess who would pay more and who would pay less in such a scenario. The bottom line is those tax cuts for the rich aren’t going to pay for themselves, but this might.

Time once again to talk about the Super Bowl and its economic impact

We’re less than 100 days out from Super Bowl LI here in Houston. I don’t know how much people who are not directly involved in the planning and execution of it are thinking about that.

The economic benefits of hosting a Super Bowl and other major events have long been a matter of debate, however. Houston’s host committee has yet to release its impact analysis, but these reports typically estimate that Super Bowls generate economic activity in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Academics who study such events generally find the added activity, with all the costs taken into account, is much smaller.

“I can’t tell you whether there will be a zero net impact or a modest positive one,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has long studied the sports industry, “but it’s not going to be large.”

Houston, though, may be better prepared to benefit from the Super Bowl than other cities, for several reasons. First, there isn’t much winter tourism in Houston to displace, as in other Super Bowl cities such as New Orleans and Miami, so the net gain here is much greater. Second, Houston’s hospitality industry needs the business, with new hotels built during the shale boom struggling with lower-than-expected occupancy rates as business travel declined.

Third – and perhaps most important – the city really could use a period of prolonged exposure to show business leaders and the millions watching at home that it’s not just a stodgy oil town like it was in the early 2000s.

[…]

The accounting firm PwC has estimated the economic impact of the Super Bowl since 2003, pegging the game’s value to Houston in 2004 at about $130 million in direct spending. It estimated that the last Super Bowl, number 50, was worth $220 million to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Cities have gotten better at making the most of Super Bowl week, said Adam Jones, a PwC analyst. By planning events within a relatively small radius so visitors spend more time on experiences than getting to them, cities can capture greater returns.

Houston has done that, with NFL Live at Discovery Green — a 10-day music and food-filled festival open to the public — only a few minutes from NRG Stadium via light rail or taxi. Additional bus and shuttle lines will be available should guests want to venture to the Galleria as well.

“What we’ve seen within the past five years is communities going out, learning what has worked, what hasn’t worked in cities that preceded them,” Jones said. “We continue to see year over year improvement in the model.”

University of Houston economist Bill Gilmer looked at additional tax revenues generated during the 2004 Super Bowl, about $5 million, and estimated the 2017 edition would bring in an extra $6.6 million in sales taxes for the city plus another $2.2 million in hotel occupancy taxes and $6.8 million for Metro.

Longer-term benefits are harder to measure. The city’s tourism promotion arm, HoustonFirst, said it was able to go after bigger conventions when the Hilton Americas was completed in 2004. That added 1,200 rooms directly connected to the convention center, and the Marriott Marquis will have a similar effect. The city booked a record number of room nights for future conventions in 2015 and expects to break the record again this year, according to HoustonFirst.

We’ve discussed this a few times before. I’m sure that the economic benefit of hosting a Super Bowl is generally overstated, but I do think there is a benefit, and I do think it’s possible that cities have learned from past experiences and academic study to maximize the benefit that is available to them. As the story notes, Houston doesn’t have much tourism trade to displace, but we do have an extensive food-and-drink sector of our economy that will surely enjoy having all these out-of-towners around. The spending that has been done on infrastructure is spending that needed to be done, and which will be a public good long after the Super Bowl people have gone home. In the end, someone will put out a number, and we can make of that what we will. Whatever that number is, I expect the city of Houston will look back on this experience and decide that it was worth it.

Our tax system isn’t quite as stupid as it could be

Good news!

BagOfMoney

A Texas Supreme Court ruling has spared the state from having to issue billions of dollars in tax refunds to oil and gas drillers — a prospect that had had threatened to shake up the next legislative session.

The justices on Friday sided with Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar in an arcane tax dispute that the Republican feared could have far-reaching consequences for the state’s budget outlook.

Denying Midland-based driller Southwest Royalties’ request for a refund, the court ruled that state law did not exempt metal pipes, tubing and other equipment used in oil and gas extraction exempt from sales taxes.

“Southwest did not prove that the equipment for which it sought a tax exemption was used in “actual manufacturing, processing, or fabricating” of hydrocarbons within the meaning” of the tax code, Justice Phil Johnson wrote for the majority in an opinion that affirmed decisions in lower courts. “Thus, Southwest is not entitled to an exemption from paying sales taxes on purchases of the equipment.”

See here, here, and here for the background. As noted in the story, some $4 billion or more would have had to be refunded to various businesses if the Supremes had ruled for the plaintiffs. Needless to say, that would have been bad news for the state, as well as for cities and counties who get their share of sales tax revenue, too. Thankfully, there is a bottom to the stupidity in our tax code. Good to know.

Council unanimously passes Turner’s first budget

Good job.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner achieved his goal of securing unanimous passage of his first general fund budget Wednesday morning, a month ahead of the typical schedule and after an unusually brief and uncontentious discussion of council members’ proposed changes.

The $2.3 billion general fund budget, which pays for most basic city services with revenues from taxes and fees, represents only the second budget cut for Houston in two decades. The first came after the 2008 nationwide financial crisis.

“It’s not my budget, it’s our budget,” Turner told City Council. “There are fewer than 20 amendments today, which I think speaks to the collaborative nature of the partnership we have. I want to thank you for the trust you’ve placed in me.”

[…]

Turner’s budget proposal in general , which spends $82 million less than was budgeted in the current fiscal year, despite an additional $27 million for employee raises and an increase of $29 million in pension payments, cuts 54 vacant positions and includes roughly 40 layoffs.

The document pulls $10 million from reserves, makes $56 million in permanent changes, mainly cuts within departments, and relies on $94 million in one-time fixes to bridge the $160 million gap the city had faced between its revenues and expenses.

The Mayor’s press release is here, and a longer version of the Chron story is here. This is the “easy” budget, in the sense that it doesn’t yet do anything related to pensions, and was able to use a number of one-time items to help boost revenue and mitigate the need for deeper cuts. Next year will be harder, especially if sales tax revenue continue to sag. The relative ease and widespread harmony with which this budget was passed gives Turner some momentum and a fair amount of political capital to deal with that budget as it comes. The Press has more.

Have I mentioned lately that the revenue cap is stupid public policy?

Because it is.

BagOfMoney

Sales taxes are Houston’s second-largest source of revenue for the general fund, which pays for most core services.

Just as concerning for city officials, however, was more news about the city’s largest general fund revenue source: property taxes.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, as he did in February, criticized what he said is an unjust and inequitable system that lets commercial property owners abuse legal loopholes to successfully challenge their property appraisals and pull millions out of local governments’ budgets.

As of February, the hole created by those tax lawsuits was to be a projected $16 million for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. By Wednesday, Turner and his finance director, Kelly Dowe, said that projection had risen to more than $32 million.

Council cut the property tax rate last fall to ensure the city would not collect more property tax revenue than is allowed under the city’s decade-old, voter-approved revenue cap, which limits growth in property tax collections to 4.5 percent or the combined rates of population growth and inflation, whichever is lower.

Companies’ successful lawsuits are pushing tax collections below the cap, however, with no way to adjust the rate back up to fill that hole.

“It’s a double hit. Last year you all lowered the tax rate based on the revenue cap. Had we known then we were going to be down another $32 million, I don’t think you would have lowered it that low. You cannot budget that way,” Turner said. “I will again ask the Legislature to remedy this situation. Taxes from hard-working homeowners should not effectively subsidize wealthy commercial property owners.”

But hey, look on the bright side: The system is working exactly as designed.

Final Four weekend was pretty good for Houston

We’ll take it.

Beyond the basketball court, the Houston economy appears to be the big winner of the Final Four.

Across the city, several restaurants, bars and hotels reported big boosts in customers and cash flow, as an estimated 70,000 out-of-town basketball fans arrived for the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Organizers say those fans could spend $150 million in a city that could use a lift as a prolonged oil slump persists.

“I feel like it’s exceeded expectations,” said Rachel Quan, vice president of external operations for the Houston Final Four Local Organizing Committee.

Many local officials and business leaders said they view the Final Four as something of a test-run for next year’s Super Bowl. The city is sprucing up to accommodate the thousands of expected visitors with a slew of development projects – from road improvements around NRG Stadium and Hobby Airport to building the Marriott Marquis that will connect with the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The benefits of hosting major sporting events -weighing costs and crowds versus the visitor spending and promotion – have long been debated. At times, the city struggled over the weekend to accommodate the swarms of Final Four visitors. Concerts at Discovery Green in downtown were so busy that police were forced to turn people away, leading some to complain of poor planning.

The Final Four alone might not create a wave of economic growth, but is the culmination of events like the Super Bowl and the annual Offshore Technology Conference next month that have the greatest potential impact, said Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston.

“Collectively, it can be a very important part of the Houston economy,” he said.

I’ve made plenty of fun of economic impact projections for sporting events, but this at least is talking about something that has already happened, and whatever you think about those projections, it’s a different matter when a business like Phoenicia reports a big increase in sales during the period in question. As always, you still have to be careful about accepting numbers like these on their face, as some folks might have stayed home instead of going out or otherwise not spent money that they would have if there hadn’t been a big event crowding the streets and clogging up traffic. We also don’t know how much the city had to spend on maintenance, overtime, cleanup, and what have you – that figure is never taken into account in these stories. But overall it seems that local businesses got a boost from the weekend’s activities, and that’s always a good thing. Let’s hope we get more of the same from next year’s Super Bowl.

Lawsuits and low oil prices

Both are threatening the next Texas budget.

BagOfMoney

Last week, lawyers for the state of Texas got the latest in a string of bad legal news.

A lawsuit challenging the state’s foster care system as inhumane appeared to gain steam when an appeals court rejected the state’s request to stop the appointment of two “special masters” to recommend reforms.

The overhauls that have been discussed so far would be pricey to implement — as much as $100 million per year, according to rough estimates from the state comptroller’s office. But they actually are on the lower end of all the extraordinary legal expenses the state is facing at a time when stubbornly low oil prices are simultaneously threatening to blunt its coffers.

Three other lawsuits against the state — two of them pending before the Texas Supreme Court, with rulings expected soon — could cost the state billions if it ends up on the losing side. Experts say the state may have the cash to cover one of them in a single budget cycle, but probably not any more than that — especially if low oil prices persist, dampening the state’s stream of tax revenue. That could mean budget cuts when lawmakers meet for the 2017 session, at least if the Republican-dominated Legislature remains steadfast in its refusal to tap the state’s nearly $10 billion Rainy Day Fund.

Two of those three lawsuits, both tax cases, could cost the state a combined $10.4 billion in tax refunds and up to $2 billion in collections per year beyond that, according to the comptroller’s office, which is closely monitoring them.

Potential cost estimates do not exist for the last case — a high-profile challenge to the state’s public education funding system — but past school finance rulings have cost the state billions.

Such sums would handily eclipse the state’s $4.2 billion projected surplus, which could itself dwindle if oil prices remain low and further blunt tax collections. (Comptroller Glenn Hegar has already lowered projections once.)

“Any of those by themselves are a huge hit,” said Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. “But if you start losing two or three of those issues then, yeah, it’s much more questionable that the state’s general revenue reserves are sufficient to cover that.”

See here and here for some background. There’s not much that can be done about the price of oil, though after years of living it up, and of politicians claiming credit for all that robustness, I doubt there’s much sympathy out there for us. The rest are the result of policy and/or legislative decisions, some of which may well bite us in the bottom line. I’m rooting for the Supreme Court to stick it hard to the Lege on school finance, but the other cases I’d rather see the state win. As much political hay as there is to be made in a chaotic situation, there’s nothing good from a public policy perspective on those cases, and I have little faith the Lege would do a good job cleaning up the mess. But on school finance, all bets ought to be off. We’ll see how it goes.

The Supreme Court hears that case about how stupid our tax system is

There’s a lot of money riding on the outcome.

BagOfMoney

With billions of dollars at stake, the Texas Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a tax showdown whose outcome could shake up the next legislative session while straining the historically friendly relationship between state lawmakers and the iconic oil and gas sector.

Throughout a spirited debate over arcane accounting rules and oil-tinged science, the justices offered few clues as to how they might rule.

“They’re all great poker faces,” said James LeBas, an economist with the Texas Oil & Gas Association and a former chief revenue estimator for Texas, following arguments.

The case ultimately focuses on a single question: Are metal pipes, tubing and other equipment used in oil and gas extraction exempt from sales taxes?

[…]

David Keltner, an attorney representing Southwest Royalties, argued that certain extraction equipment clearly fits the exemption’s definition.

The company’s equipment “processes” West Texas crude by separating it into marketable oil and gas, he argued, at times pointing to a chart that displayed the various stages of petroleum extraction. Once the crude is brought up from the ground, it is no longer part of a mineral owner’s estate, he said.

“It is tangible personal property. People own it,” Keltner said. “If you were to hold otherwise, there would be serious consequences.”

Among the consequences he named: Texas regulators would struggle to hold drillers accountable for the oil they extract.

Arguing for the state, Texas assistant solicitor general Michael Murphy disagreed, arguing that minerals are not “tangible personal property,” and that Southwest’s equipment was not necessarily responsible for transforming the crude.

“Southwest’s mineral extraction is really like gathering raw materials,” he said, dubbing the mechanics “pre-production or pre-processing.”

“Until that oil and gas bubbles out of the ground, it’s part of the [real estate].”

Justice Phil Johnson, questioned that interpretation.

“It’s not personal property in the tubing, when it’s coming up, it’s still realty?” he asked. “Even though it’s outside the ground, outside the natural environment?”

Justice Eva Guzman wondered how Texans could determine the precise moment the crude changes phases. “But how would we know when?” she asked.

Keltner, the driller’s attorney, said that instrumentation on the surface would reveal that information. Murphy disagreed.

Murphy also pointed to a separate tax exemption on the books for purchases of some of the same equipment in question — if it’s used for offshore drilling outside of Texas. Texas lawmakers, he said, would not likely intend to consruct overlapping exemptions.

He also argued that the court must revert to a narrow interpretation of the tax code — siding with the state — if a rule is deemed ambiguous.

But Keltner argued that the wording clearly supported the driller’s side, and that denying the exemption was unfair. He listed several other purchases that Hegar’s office has allowed companies to write-off under the policy — including equipment that speeds the ripening of bananas.

“Our concern here is, that we have a new stance applied to the oil and gas industry differently,” he said. “A banana is going to ripen anyway. That is inevitable.”

See here and here for the background. As I said, it’s all angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff, just with billions of dollars on the line. There’s a part of me that’s rooting for the court to rule for the plaintiffs on the grounds that this would force the Legislature to take action and try to make our tax system better. It quickly gets overwhelmed by the much larger part of me that recognizes the huge potential for mischief and malfeasance by the Lege if this door ever gets opened. So for better or worse I do want to see the state win.

Supreme Court to decide just how stupid our tax system is

Oh, goody.

BagOfMoney

The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday will hear arguments in a case that could deliver a multi-billion windfall to struggling oil and gas producers by taking a major bite out of state tax revenue.

The issue before the justices may sound arcane: Are metal pipes, tubing and other equipment used in oil and gas extraction exempt from sales taxes? But a yes to that question, brought by a Midland-based driller, could trigger a flood of refunds that would wipe out the state’s projected $4 billion budget surplus, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar warns.

“This one’s as big as they come,” the Republican said in an interview. “The neon light lights up, because of the sticker shock.”

Southwest Royalties, a subsidiary of Clayton Williams Energy, filed its lawsuit in 2009, just before improved technology unleashed a surge of oil production that transformed the U.S. energy landscape. Susan Combs, Hegar’s predecessor, was named in the original lawsuit, which has wound through the court system for years.

[…]

Granting the exemption would affect more than the company’s tax bill, Hegar argues in court filings. It would “impose a severe financial penalty on Texas taxpayers” amounting to $4.4 billion in 2017, and $500 million each year after that as companies around the state seek to cash in, according to estimates compiled in 2012.

On Tuesday, the justices will parse the language of a sales tax exemption for goods and services used in the “actual manufacturing, processing, or fabrication of tangible personal property,” and consider how that description relates to the mechanics of petroleum extraction.

The case hinges on whether certain extraction equipment — like casing, pipes, tubing and pumps — fits the definition cited in the exemption.

[…]

Ideally, judges decide such cases only on their merits, experts say, but the budget impact can factor into their decision-making.

Warnings from the comptroller’s office already seem to have helped its cause in this case.

At a hearing in 2012, Travis County District Judge John Dietz said he would rule in favor of Southwest Royalties, only to later reverse his position in a written decision.

The driller suggests that a Wall Street Journal article quoting dire warnings from Combs swayed the judge.

An appeals court in Travis County upheld Dietz’s written decision, backing the comptroller’s interpretation due to “a lack of clarity” in the way lawmakers wrote the exemption.

Hegar cited those earlier rulings in expressing confidence that Texas would ultimately prevail.

“The state’s legal arguments are 100 percent valid,” he said in an interview. “The law is not on the side of those asking for the tax refund.”

But Dietz’s initial inclination may have telegraphed that Southwest’s arguments are “pretty strong,” Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association and a former chief revenue estimator for the state, told the Tribune earlier this year.

See here for the background. Just a reminder, it is well within the Lege’s power to clear this up. Now maybe the Supreme Court will bail them out, and maybe if they don’t some other case will jump up and bite the state’s bottom line in the bottom. And again, the Lege could fix it if they wanted to. I think we both know how that’s going to go.

We have a messed up tax system in this state, part deux

Sooner or later, it’s going to collapse under its own weight.

BagOfMoney

The state’s highest civil court last week agreed to hear a case hinging on whether metal pipes, tubing and other equipment used in oil and gas production should be exempt from sales taxes. While the issue is arcane, the impact to the state could be significant.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar is sounding the alarm that a ruling favoring the industry could force the state to issue tax refunds of as much as $4.4 billion — enough to wipe out the state’s projected budget surplus.

“This is very serious, real money,” said Hegar, the state’s chief financial officer, this week in an interview.

Midland-based Southwest Royalties, a subsidiary of Clayton Williams Energy, sued the state in 2009 — just before a drilling boom transformed the U.S. energy landscape — after Susan Combs, Hegar’s predecessor, rejected a claim for refunds on purchases dating back to 1997. Over the years, the case has wound its way through the court system.

Now, the state’s Supreme Court justices are set to weigh the company’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling amid concerns that a prolonged drilling slowdown might hurt Texas’ bottom line.

It is one of two ongoing tax cases — the other filed by the parent company of AMC movie theaters — that budget watchers fear will cost Texas millions in past and future tax revenue if the final outcomes don’t go their way. Hegar called the pair of cases “two of the biggest potentially that could impact what appropriators do in the next legislative session,” though he expressed confidence that the state would prevail in both.

The oral arguments in the drilling case, set for March 8, are likely to enthrall accountants and chemistry teachers alike. The justices will need to parse the language of a sales tax exemption for goods and services used in the “actual manufacturing, processing, or fabrication of tangible personal property,” and debate how that description relates to the mechanics of petroleum extraction.

The case hinges on whether certain extraction equipment — like casing, pipes, tubing and pumps — fits the definition cited in the exemption.

See here for the background on the other case. Honestly, it’s all angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff, and no one who isn’t a specialist will understand the ruling when it gets handed down. Which frees me up to think about the political angle, and what I think is this: With the state economy potentially in a multi-year slump, a budget that may fall into deficit again regardless of this case or the school finance case, and a property tax system that privileges the wealthy and powerful at everyone else’s expense, the time may be ripe for a candidate to grab the Mary Beth Rogers playbook and make a case for giving our state government a complete overhaul. The case for change, if things don’t get better, will be compelling. The counter, as always, will be to blame the federal government, and to be sure that will exert a strong allure on many. But after 15 years of all-Republican control, and multiple cycles of Republican candidates promising to fix the budget and build the economy, maybe there will be room for people to consider an alternative. Just something to think about.

We have a messed up tax system in this state

The latest exhibit:

BagOfMoney

The volatile oil and gas industry already has prompted Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar to reduce his state revenue estimate, but that may not be the last of the bad budget news.

A court decision potentially could cost Texas around $1.1 billion a year in franchise tax revenue, plus require four years’ worth of refunds totaling another $6 billion, according to the comptroller’s office.

“It could be enormous. Enormous,” Hegar said in an interview about the possible effect of the lawsuit brought by American Multi-Cinema, which so far has won its court battle for a bigger deduction from its franchise tax payments.

If the 3rd Court of Appeals ruling in the case stands, the two-year refund due AMC is calculated at nearly $1.2 million.

But Hegar is predicting a potentially much bigger hit for the state based on the assumption that a wide range of businesses would be quick to take advantage of the deduction awarded Missouri-based AMC. The state is asking the court for a rehearing.

The AMC lawsuit centers on the franchise-tax deduction for “cost of goods sold,” which includes such things as the raw material used to make an item.

The 3rd Court of Appeals ruled in the lawsuit in April that exhibiting a movie amounts to a “good” because it’s “perceptible to the senses,” fitting the definition of tangible personal property. Therefore, the court said, AMC can include its auditorium expenses as production costs when figuring its franchise-tax deduction.

“As a practical matter, the court’s holding could potentially treat a business exhibiting a movie as producing TPP (tangible personal property) in much the same way that a carpenter produces a chair or desk” and allow many other service providers to claim deductions, Hegar wrote to state leaders in June.

“It could be lawyers, accountants, people that mow yards. It’s just unbelievable how broad it was,” he said. It opens the door to deductions for their computers or other equipment. “You can even argue that now when somebody comes and mows your yard, you sit in the back yard and you smell that grass, and it’s real pretty. It’s perception to your senses.

“The list just doesn’t stop,” Hegar said. “It would kind of be like the kids’ Christmas list in a Santa Claus movie. It’s a real long list. It just keeps on rolling out the door.”

In a similar fashion, this ruling could also affect the state sales tax, and that could wind up offsetting some of the franchise tax loss. Or maybe not – estimates of the possible total cost of this ruling are in the $6 billion per year range. That’s getting into some real money, at a time when the state could wind up also being on the hook for a lot more money to public education. Like the public ed issue, this will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the Lege, which could clarify what the franchise tax covers or – since abolishing the franchise tax is the current fetish – replace it with something else. I wouldn’t hold out much hope.

The Prop 7 funds are already being claimed

Get ready for a lot more road construction in the near future.

Voters have a little more than a week to decide whether to give Texas highways a $2.75 billion annual funding boost, but Houston-area officials are already making plans to spend the money.

In the event Proposition 7 passes – the proposal has silent, token opposition – officials with the Houston-Galveston Area Council on Friday approved a revised 10-year spending plan that reflects when area road projects could begin, using the new money.

“Readiness will be the name of the game,” said David Wurdlow, program manager for short-range transportation planning at H-GAC. “We are going to be real aggressive to move projects forward.”

Without Proposition 7 the amount of money available for regional transportation projects is roughly $2.1 billion for the next decade, according to the current 10-year plan. Though not the only source of highway money, the funds directed by H-GAC’s Transportation Policy Council are among the most significant to build or rebuild highways.

Adding Proposition 7, officials estimate, increases that total to more than $4.6 billion, taking long-sought projects and moving them much closer to reality much sooner. In fiscal year 2018, for example, Proposition 7 would increase highway spending in the Houston area from $211 million to $696 million.

In 2018 alone, Proposition 7 means an earlier start to two segments of widening Interstate 45 near NASA Bypass 1 in Webster and earlier construction on FM 2100 east of Atascocita.

Another project accelerated by planners is a long-sought widening of Texas 36. Though the road isn’t a major commuting bottleneck, widening it is a major focus Freeport and Waller County officials who contend the highway is a natural truck bypass for the Houston area.

[…]

Like Proposition 1, the money comes with some conditions. Officials cannot pay off any of Texas’ highway debt, which is how many previous transportation programs were paid. All of the funds must be used on state highways – meaning no tollways, transit or alternative modes such as bicycling can benefit.

Some non-highway projects, however, could benefit, if regional officials approve. The transportation council is made up of local elected leaders and the heads of transportation agencies such as the Metropolitan Transit Authority and TxDOT’s Beaumont and Houston offices. Council members use a formula that divides the federal and state funds spent by the agency, which caps spending on non-highway projects, called alternative modes, to between 18 percent and 25 percent of total funds.

If the Proposition 7 windfall gives officials hundreds of millions of dollars more for highways, they could restructure.

“We might be able to move those (highway projects) to the proposition side and move some of those funds to alternative modes,” Wurdlow said.

Prop 7 isn’t raising any new money to spend on transportation, because we don’t do that sort of thing in Texas. It simply mandates that $2.5 billion of sales and use tax revenues in Texas specifically to transportation – in other words, it takes money from one pocket of the budget and puts it in the other. If you’re wondering why legislators who have been writing the state’s budget over the pasty few years were unable to allocate extra funds for transportation on their own, or thinking that this is just another band-aid that doesn’t actually solve anything, you would not be alone. Streetsblog and the Rivard Report present a more comprehensive case against Prop 7, but I doubt it will have much effect. Like it or not, we’re going to see a lot more highway construction in the near future. Better get used to it.

Revisiting the Texas-Amazon sales tax deal

The Statesman looks back and concludes it was a pretty good deal all around.

Amazon

In 2012, the state rolled the dice on a controversial deal with e-commerce giant Amazon.com.

To end a two-year battle, Texas said it would drop a $269 million sales tax bill due from the Seattle-based company in exchange for an incentive deal, among other agreements.

Amazon said it would begin collecting sales taxes within 60 days and create 2,500 jobs in Texas and invest $200 million in the state by 2014.

Now, as the company says it’s exceeded those benchmarks, state officials and economists say the agreement was the right call for Texas.

“I believe Texas benefited from the deal with Amazon. The agreement meant Amazon began collecting and remitting taxes to the state, which the comptroller’s office felt were legally due,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar told the American-Statesman. “The agreement also allowed Amazon to start building warehouses and to greatly expand their physical presence in the state, which was largely beneficial to the economy.”

This summer, the Internet retailer told state officials it reached more than 3,500 employees in Texas and made more than $300 million in capital investment in Texas by the end of 2014, according to documents filed with the comptroller’s office.

Amazon also paid an undisclosed amount to settle the matter in 2012.

With the deal, Texas ended a two-year fight seeking the company’s uncollected sales taxes, and Amazon began collecting on July 1, 2012 — potentially adding millions of dollars in new revenue to state coffers in coming years. Now, current figures seem to prove that out.

An American-Statesman analysis of data from the comptroller’s office shows the state’s sales tax collections have risen by hundreds of millions of dollars since Amazon.com began issuing the levy on Texas residents.

Since July 2012, sales tax revenue in Amazon’s sector has gone up more than $325 million, comptroller data shows. While state law prohibits the comptroller’s office from releasing sales tax collections by individual companies, it’s clear a significant portion of that increase is a result of Amazon’s Texas sales.

Although Hegar wasn’t the comptroller at the time of the 2012 deal, he says the state has benefited from Amazon’s presence.

“We welcome and appreciate Amazon like we do all the retailers in our state,” Hegar said in weighing the company’s role in Texas today. “We encourage and benefit from the economic activity generated by both their physical activities in the state through capital investment and job creation, and also greatly appreciate their following the law by collecting and remitting taxes from our citizens when selling taxable items.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I supported this deal back then, and I’m glad to see it has basically worked as intended. The rationale from two decades ago for making online sales tax-free has long since been rendered irrelevant, and the effect of that policy has become increasingly expensive for state and local governments. It just made sense for Amazon and other online retailers to start charging sales taxes. A few years later, this isn’t even controversial any more. Like I said, a good outcome and I’m glad to see it.

BP settlement cash

Nice.

BagOfMoney

The city of Houston, Harris County and Metro netted $23 million in compensation from BP for revenue they could not collect in the wake of the company’s 2010 Gulf oil spill, officials announced Thursday.

Houston will pocket about $12.2 million from the costliest environmental lawsuit in U.S. history to cover hotel and sales tax shortfalls. The Metropolitan Transit Authority will receive more than $9.2 million for lost sales tax revenue, and Harris County will get $2.1 million for lost hotel occupancy tax revenues, officials announced in a joint statement.

However, expenses for the case and fees for two outside lawyers who represented the city, county and Metro will carve off nearly 40 percent of those totals.

Nearby communities and government entities, including the city of Galveston, Jefferson County, the city of Beaumont, and Orange Port Authority also are among the 511 entities that said the spill caused an economic shortfall.

The payouts are part of the $18.7 billion that BP agreed to pay earlier this month for damages and penalties resulting from the Deepwater Horizon spill – the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.

[…]

Houston Mayor Annise Parker and Harris County Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Morman said they were satisfied with the settlement. Commissioners Court has not yet determined how the county will split the money.

“Frankly, I wish we would have gotten more, but certainly it was a worthwhile lawsuit,” Radack said.

Several commissioners received a total of 1,700 identical emails from BP employees, via a server in United Arab Emirates, urging them not to pursue legal action against the company, according to Soard at the County Attorney’s office.

County Judge Ed Emmett, who voted in Commissioners Court against seeking damages, said, “I thought it was a stretch to say that we lost so much revenue because people didn’t rent hotel rooms here because of the BP spill.”

“Am I glad the county won? Sure. Would we have been part of the lawsuit if it had been just up to me? Probably not.”

He said he was disappointed the county would only to realize $1.3 million after the lawyers took their cut. Commissioner R. Jack Cagle had also voted against entering the lawsuit, in his case because he thought the county attorney could handle the case.

As to whether it was appropriate to seek damages, Janice Evans, spokeswoman for the mayor, said, “We raised the same exact issues as more than 500 other governmental entities and all parties have agreed to this, as has the court, so we would not characterize it as opportunist.”

Whether the amount that these three entities will receive is “enough” is not one I can answer, nor can I answer it for the 500 others involved in the litigation, not to mention BP itself. It’s something, and I’m quite sure it will be put to good use.

Circling back to city finances

I have three things to say about this.

BagOfMoney

This time, [City Finance Director Kelly] Dowe insists, the $126 million deficit he projects for the budget year that starts next summer is not going to disappear, as past projected shortfalls have. There are no more payments to defer, he says, no more valuable city-owned land to sell.

As a result, the city could be facing layoffs and cuts to services within a year – perhaps pool closures, restricted library hours and parks going to seed, and perhaps worse.

“We have an unsustainable financial model,” Councilman Dave Martin said. “We cannot continue to do this. If we continue down this path, we’ll be belly up.”

Dowe and his boss, Mayor Annise Parker, know Houstonians are confused as to why their government would face layoffs and service cuts while the region’s economy booms.

There are several reasons for this, all a decade or more in the making.

The city has been spending more than it brings in for years, a structural gap driven chiefly by soaring pension costs and, in recent years, a spike in debt payments. Houston typically bridges this gap by budgeting conservatively, being happily surprised when tax revenues exceed projections during the year, then using those “extra” dollars to balance the next year’s budget.

To balance the current budget for the fiscal year that started last week, council approved taking $86 million from last year’s leftover savings, the largest such transfer in a decade.

“Obviously we carry the reserves over from year to year. That’s money that’s not generated or not expected to be generated in the next budget cycle,” said Controller Ronald Green, the city’s elected financial watchdog. “Clearly, if you want to be technical, it is not a structurally balanced budget.”

This history of disappearing deficits has made some council members skeptical of just how dire current projections are. Dowe acknowledged that he originally projected an enormous shortfall for the current budget, which wound up being balanced without layoffs or service cuts.

But he also ticked off a litany of reasons that he says will make another easy fix harder in the future.

First, the city has run into a cap on property tax revenues that voters imposed a decade ago. Houston can collect more property taxes each year than the year prior, but is limited to the combined rates of inflation and population growth.

The city now knows exactly what it will collect each year from its largest source of revenue, and no number of new skyscrapers or townhomes will change that. The typical way the city has wound up with “extra” money at the end of each year is thus gone. Without the cap, the city would have had another $53 million to spend this year.

[…]

Each of the next two years also will bring a $50 million payment to the police pension, triggered under the pension board’s contract with the city because sluggish investment returns have eroded its funding level.

Without an increase in revenue, Dowe said, the only option is to cut services.

“Debt is what it is, pensions are what they are,” he said. “We will continue to get more efficient, we will continue to cut costs where we can, but in the long term it would be hard to say you wouldn’t affect services with the outlook we have.”

Debt payments for past public projects have risen by more than half over the last five years, to $346 million this year, and are projected to reach $411 million by 2020. Pensions are devouring $308 million of the city’s main operating fund this year, nearly three times what is spent on parks and libraries combined.

1. There’s no serious solution to this problem that doesn’t include repealing the revenue cap. Every candidate running for office runs on a promise of promoting economic growth and prosperity. Houston has had that these past few years, but thanks to the cap we’re being penalized for it. Fifty-three million dollars is a lot of money and would do a lot to reduce the scope of the problem we’re facing, and that’s just for this year. You want to argue that we don’t have a revenue problem in Houston I’ll be sympathetic, but that doesn’t mean that throwing away extra revenue like this makes any sense. There is no good reason not to use all available resources.

You may argue that the people won’t go for it, and you may be right. What evidence we have from limited polling certainly suggests that’s a strong possibility. To that I say, how about a little leadership from those who want to be Mayor? Politicians love to talk about “making the tough choices”, yet somehow choices like this never seem to be on the table. To be fair, at least some Mayoral candidates have mentioned this – I know Chris Bell has, I’ll have to check on some others – and Mayor Parker has brought it up as well. Any candidate who says they want to make “tough choices” but doesn’t consider this is to my mind not to be taken seriously.

2. Similarly, I don’t know how anyone can look at the debt figures and not support ReBuild Houston. One of the defining purposes of ReBuild Houston was to pay down existing debt and reduce the amount of future debt needed to pay for infrastructure. Put aside the extra revenue stream that ReBuild Houston represents, why would you want to add to the debt burden at this time? I’m not against using debt to invest in the city’s infrastructure, but now is not a very good time for it. What exactly is the case for going back to a bond-based system of paying for street and drainage improvements?

3. Finally, the pension issue. The choices are the same as they’ve always been – try to convince the Legislature to grant the city the authority to make changes to the pension plan; try to negotiate a different agreement with the firefighters; suck it up and figure out how to pay what we owe. I’m not sure why anyone thinks they’d be more successful at #1 than Mayor Parker has been, and I can’t imagine anyone advocating for #3. Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t know. I don’t know what else there is to say on this.

Sales tax revenues take a dip

Don’t freak out just yet, but do be a little worried.

Houston’s 53-month consecutive span of year-over-year sales tax revenue gains has come to an end, five months into an energy slump analysts said could dent the city’s economic numbers for the rest of the year.

The city’s $50.1 million sales tax revenues for April, received this month as its allocation from the state, represented a 2.3 percent decline from a year ago, according to the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

One month’s spending activity doesn’t represent a trend, and revenues from various sectors of Houston’s economy were all over the map. Among the top-grossing sub-sectors providing tax revenue in Houston, reported collections were down roughly 2 percent at discount department stores and family clothing stores that month compared with 2014, and off 2.6 percent at supermarkets and grocery stores. Full- and limited-service restaurant collections, on the other hand, rose 4.7 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively, figures show.

But as Houston’s sales tax revenues declined 2.3 percent, the state’s $2.6 billion in sales tax revenue represented a 5.2 percent increased over April 2014, suggesting that a sharp downturn in the oil and gas industry so crucial to Texas has affected Houston more significantly than the rest of the state.

[…]

In Houston, sales taxes account for 30 percent of the city budget’s general fund revenue. As the city prepares its next budget, whether the monthly dip is a blip or a more sustained rattle is being monitored, city Controller Ronald Green said.

“I think now’s the time not to panic but for us to kind of determine if there’s going to be a trend in this,” Green said, adding he needs two more months of data to determine whether’s April’s revenues were a trend or an anomaly.

Compared to the doom-and-gloom predictions of late last year, steadying crude prices for the last several weeks are a sign industry is making adjustments, said Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of Wulfe and Co., a commercial retail real estate brokerage firm. “I think it has corrected itself already,” he said of the energy downturn. “By and large, we’re starting to get back on the normal speed and level already.”

Crude oil prices began dipping last summer after reaching a peak above $100 per barrel and have hovered around $60 since April.

The effects of that sharp price decline began arriving at the beginning of April, said Jesse Thompson, business economist with the Houston branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“At this point, the only thing that’s hitting us is what’s happening in the energy market,” Thompson said.

I basically agree with Ronald Green. A one month dip like this can be brushed off as an aberration. Three months of it is a serious problem. If it’s about what’s happening in the energy industry, there’s not much to be done about it except adjust behavior and expectations accordingly. Check back in August and we’ll see where we are.

Meet your Constitutional amendments

A pretty uninspiring bunch, if you ask me.

vote-button

Now that the dust has settled on the 84th Texas Legislature, voters are getting the first official look at which constitutional amendments they will be voting on come November.

Texas Secretary of State Carlos Cascos on Wednesday took the last step to place seven propositions on this fall’s general election ballot, all of which were approved by two-thirds of all state lawmakers during the just-ended session. Per state law, they are chosen randomly in a drawing to assign the order in which each proposition will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.

All told, they run the gamut of state issues, from the serious to the mundane, and they create a narrative of the session that is not at all inconsistent with what really happened under the Pink Dome.

Here are the amendments, in the order they will appear on your ballot.

Proposition 1 (SJR 1)

“The constitutional amendment increasing the amount of the residence homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation for public school purposes from $15,000 to $25,000, providing for a reduction of the limitation on the total amount of ad valorem taxes that may be imposed for those purposes on the homestead of an elderly or disabled person to reflect the increased exemption amount, authorizing the legislature to prohibit a political subdivision that has adopted an optional residence homestead exemption from ad valorem taxation from reducing the amount of or repealing the exemption, and prohibiting the enactment of a law that imposes a transfer tax on a transaction that conveys fee simple title to real property.”

Proposition 2 (HJR 75)

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to provide for an exemption from ad valorem taxation of all or part of the market value of the residence homestead of the surviving spouse of a 100 percent or totally disabled veteran who died before the law authorizing a residence homestead exemption for such a veteran took effect.”

Proposition 3 (SJR 52)

“The constitutional amendment repealing the requirement that state officers elected by voters statewide reside in the state capital.”

Proposition 4 (HJR 73)

“The constitutional amendment authorizing the legislature to permit professional sports team charitable foundations to conduct charitable raffles.”

Proposition 5 (SJR 17)

“The constitutional amendment to authorize counties with a population of 7,500 or less to perform private road construction and maintenance.”

Proposition 6 (SJR 22)

“The constitutional amendment recognizing the right of the people to hunt, fish, and harvest wildlife subject to laws that promote wildlife conservation.”

Proposition 7 (SJR 5)

“The constitutional amendment dedicating certain sales and use tax revenue and motor vehicle sales, use, and rental tax revenue to the state highway fund to provide funding for nontolled roads and the reduction of certain transportation-related debt.”

I will be voting No on #s 3 and 7 and probably on 1, Yes on #2, and I have no idea yet on the others. What about you?

Budget deal

What Christopher Hooks says.

BagOfMoney

Texans, you can put down your pitchforks and douse your torches: The edibles you’ve squirreled away in your emergency bunkers can be safely consumed. Life can begin anew. The tax cut war between House and Senate has been resolved, which means that barring a catastrophic screw-up—say, Comptroller Glenn Hegar realizing he misplaced a decimal point in the revenue estimate—we won’t need that special session on budget issues that legislative observers and hack journalists have worried you all about so much.

Is the package—a $3.8 billion dollar bundle of franchise and property tax cuts—any good? Well, that depends on your point of view. Most everyone, save some Democrats and probably a few right-wing senators, is about to tell you, loudly, that the budget deal is very, very good. There’s a great deal of face-saving to be done. This is the point of the session at which former enemies congratulate each other for the finest and most noble works of government since Periclean Athens: Patrick himself posited that this might have been the best legislative session in the state’s history.

The business lobby did pretty well in the tax deal, but the picture is a bit more complicated for most of the other players. The widespread perception outside the Capitol will be that Patrick “won” by getting some property tax cuts past the House. Meanwhile, Texans are getting a raw deal—with too small a tax break to make a real difference for most, and less money coming down the pike now and in the future for basic services like education.

[…]

Patrick wanted and needed a signature victory for this session, his first. After all this furor, Patrick is likely to win for his constituents a smaller-than-expected tax break that most Texas homeowners—the people whom Patrick is expecting to give him credit—won’t even notice, because they’ll be swallowed up by rising rates and home values. Average homeowners might pay about $120 less in property taxes than they might have otherwise, but how many will notice or care as their taxes continue to go up? The only thing that can bend the property tax curve downward is a substantive reorganization of the state’s overall tax structure. Anything else is a band-aid, and not a long-lasting one at that.

It’s not really the stuff that launches political careers skyward. Some of Patrick’s supporters have said the Legislature can rededicate itself to real property tax reform next session, but that seems doubtful. The economy will likely have cooled, and the state may face a budget hole thanks to the school finance lawsuit and other looming budget issues. This session may have been the last, best opportunity to do a big tax cut deal.

At least the teabaggers aren’t happy, though I suppose that’s the default state for them. The best thing I can say about this session is that it’s almost over, and at least a few of the awful bills that could have passed didn’t.

House passes sales tax cut

Over to you, Danno.

BagOfMoney

The Texas House tentatively approved a $4.9 billion tax relief plan Tuesday that includes a cut to the state’s sales tax, marking a clear line in the sand against the Senate, which favors property tax cuts.

The House voted 141-0 for House Bill 31 by Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, which would cut the state sales tax rate from 6.25 percent to 5.95 percent. If the bill reaches the governor’s desk, it would be the first cut in the state’s sales tax in Texas history.

Bonnen presented his sales tax cut as more impactful than the Senate’s proposal, which would increase homestead exemptions to lower local school property taxes. The Legislature passed an even larger property tax cut in 2006 that was widely viewed as underwhelming by homeowners due to increases in property values and local tax rates.

“A sales tax cannot be eroded by a local tax hike or rising appraisals,” Bonnen told the House. “We would be using our tax dollars for a tax that we control.”

My personal choice would be to invest this money in education, infrastructure, shoring up the pension system, that sort of thing, but you know what they say about elections and consequences. If we have to cut taxes, I’ll take the sales tax cut, as it’s more progressive and doesn’t require advanced shenanigans with the spending cap. But let’s keep things in perspective here. What this cut means is that if you spend $100, you will save a grand total of thirty cents on your sales tax – instead of paying $108.25, you’ll owe $107.95. The claim is that this cut will save the average family something like $170 per year, well to get that amount of savings that family would have had to spend some $57,000 on taxable goods and services during the year. That’s more than most families of four in Texas make in a year. I guarantee you, nobody is going to notice this. That’s the real problem here – any tax cut will cost the state billions, but will accrue only modest benefits to the people. I can only wonder what if any effect this will have on the next campaign, assuming this goes through the Senate as well. BOR has more.

Bill filing deadline has passed

Believe it or not, we are almost halfway through the legislative session, and we have now passed the point where new bills can be filed.

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Racing to beat a deadline for filing bills, state lawmakers on Friday submitted hundreds of measures on everything from abolishing the death penalty to the licensing of auctioneers.

By the time the dust settled, 928 bills had been filed in the state House and Senate on Friday, setting the chambers up for a busy second half of the legislative session.

“Now, it’s game on,” longtime lobbyist Bill Miller said.

In all, some 8,000 measures are now before the 84th Legislature, including 4,114 House bills, 1,993 Senate bills and 1,771 resolutions.

[…]

The most high-profile bill filed Friday was an ethics reform package supported by Gov. Greg Abbott that long had been expected to be submitted by Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano. Abbott had declared ethics reform a legislative emergency item during his State of the State address last month.

Taylor’s proposal, known as Senate Bill 19 and also backed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, would require state officials to disclose contracts with governmental entities, prohibit lawmakers from serving as bond counsel for local and state governments and make departing legislators and statewide elected officials wait one legislative session before becoming lobbyists.

“There is no more valuable bond in democracy than the trust the people have with their government,” Taylor said in a statement. “The common-sense ethics reform outlined in Senate Bill 19 will strengthen that bond and send a clear message to the people of Texas that there is no place in government for those who betray the trust given to them by the voters.”

Tax policy also was a common theme, with [Rep. Dennis] Bonnen submitting his hotly anticipated proposal to cut business and sales taxes.

The Senate, which in some ways has been moving faster than the House, already has debated several tax proposals, and the issue is expected to be a priority focus of the session.

The Trib highlights a few bills of interest.

— House Ways and Means Chairman Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, filed his long-awaited proposals to cut the rates for both the margins tax paid by businesses and the broader state sales tax. The margins tax bill, House Bill 32, is identical to one filed by Senate Finance Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. The measures should draw the House more into the tax cut debate this session, which until now has been focused more on the Senate, where Nelson has already held hearings on some high-profile measures.

— Several measures filed Friday aimed at allowing Texas to change its approach to immigration, even as broader proposals stall in Washington.

House Bill 3735 by state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, seeks to establish a partnership with the federal government to establish a guest-worker program to bring skilled and unskilled labor to Texas.

House Bill 3301 by state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, would recognize undocumented Texans as “citizens” of the state. It would allow them to apply for driver’s licenses, occupational licenses and state IDs if they meet certain residency criteria and are can verify their identity.

“It also opens the door for future conversations about the very real fact that these Texans without status are here, they are not leaving, and we should be doing everything we can to help them find employment, housing and opportunity,” said Laura Stromberg Hoke, Rodriguez’s chief of staff.

— House Bill 3401 by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, seeks to establish an interstate compact between interested states for the detection, apprehension and prosecution of undocumented immigrants.

— Looking to add restrictions on abortion, state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, R-Parker, filed House Bill 3765 to beef up the state’s informed consent laws when it comes to minors. Texas law already requires patients seeking an abortion to go through the informed consent process, but Laubenberg’s bill would require notarized consent from a minor and a minor’s parent before an abortion is performed.

— House Bill 3785 from Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso, would permit patients with cancer, seizure disorders, PTSD and other conditions to medical marijuana. The measure is broader than other bills filed this session that would only allow low-level THC oils to be used on intractable seizure patients.

— The National Security Agency might have some trouble in Texas if Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, gets his way. House Bill 3916 would make it illegal for any public entities to provide water or electric utility services to NSA data collection centers in the state.

— State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, filed a pair of measures, House Bill 3839 and House Joint Resolution 142, which would ask voters to approve the creation of as many as nine casinos. Under Deshotel’s plan, most of the casinos would be built near the Texas coast, and a large portion of the tax revenue would go toward shoring up the troubled Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, the insurer of last resort for coastal Texans.

— In an effort to pave the way for a Medicaid expansion solution that would get the support of conservatives, state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, filed House Bill 3845 to request a block grant from the federal government to reform the program and expand health care coverage for low-income Texans. Though GOP leaders have said they won’t expand Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, they’ve asked the feds for more flexibility to administer the program. Coleman’s proposal, titled the “The Texas Way,” intends to give the state more wiggle room while still drawing some Republican support.

Here’s a Statesman story about the casino bills. There’s been a distinct lack of noise around gambling expansion this session, which is change from other recent sessions. I suspect Rep. Deshotel’s proposals will go the way of those previous ones, but at least there’s a new angle this time.

Here’s a press release from Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition (RAMP) in favor of the medical marijuana bill from Rep. Marquez; there is a not-yet-numbered companion bill to HB3785 in the Senate, filed by Sen. Jose Menendez, as well. Two other, more limited, medical marijuana bills, the so-called “Texas Compassionate Use Act”, were filed in February. I don’t know which, if any, will have a chance of passage. I will note that RAMP has been admirably bipartisan in its praise of bills that loosen marijuana laws. Kudos to them for that.

If you’re annoyed at Jodie Laubenberg going after reproductive choice again, it might help a little to know that Rep. Jessica Farrar filed HB 3966 to require some accountability for so-called “crisis pregnancy centers’. Her press release is here.

I am particularly interested in Rep. Coleman’s “Texas Way” Medicaid expansion bill. (A companion bill, SB 1039, was filed by Sen. Jose Rodriguez.) I have long considered “block grant” to be dirty words in connection with Medicaid, so to say the least I was a little surprised to receive Rep. Coleman’s press release. I have complete faith in Rep. Coleman, so I’m sure this bill will move things in the direction he’s been pushing all along, but at this point I don’t understand the details well enough to explain what makes this bill different from earlier block grant proposals. I’ve sent an email to his office asking for more information. In the meantime, you can read Sen. Rodriguez’s press release and this Legislative Study Group coverage expansion policy paper for more.

Finally, one more bill worth highlighting:

The proposal introduced by out lesbian Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) would prohibit mental health providers in Texas from attempting to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of people under 18. Those who violate the law would face disciplinary action from state licensing boards.

Israel acknowledged that House Bill 3495 has little chance of passing the Republican-dominated Legislature, and it wouldn’t apply to faith-based practitioners, but she said it’s an important response to the Texas GOP’s 2014 platform plank endorsing reparative therapy.

“I don’t think that they recognize how hurtful these kinds of things can be,” Israel told the Observer. “To suggest that some young kid that happens to be gay is less than normal is very hurtful and harmful and dangerous, and I think I put myself back in those years when I was first discovering who I was. … I felt strongly about introducing a bill that was a counter to that, to say, ‘We don’t need fixing. We just need your love.’”

Virtually all of the major medical and mental health organizations have come out against reparative therapy, from the American Psychological Association to the American Medical Association and the American Counseling Association.

I agree that this bill isn’t going anywhere, but as I’ve been saying, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been filed. Good on Rep. Israel for doing what’s right. Equality Texas has more.

Voodoo economics

Also known as Dan Patrick’s budgetary contortions.

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Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, joined by the Texas Senate’s lead budget writers, announced “a new bold proposal” Wednesday morning to allow lawmakers to cut property taxes and pay down the state’s debt without busting the state’s politically charged spending cap.

“Gosh darn, we know our businesses and taxpayers need tax relief,” Patrick said at a press conference. “But because of the cap, we are limited in what we can do.”

Lawmakers entered the session with an estimated $113 billion to haggle over, but are expected to hit the state’s spending cap at $107 billion. Spending beyond the cap would require a simple majority vote in the House and Senate, a move that Republican leaders have repeatedly insisted will not happen this session.

The measures filed Wednesday are an attempt to provide political cover for Texas lawmakers to tap more of the billions of dollars sitting in state coffers without being viewed by voters as freewheeling spenders. Republicans in particular are wary of a vote for breaking the state’s spending cap being used against them in future primaries to paint them as fiscally irresponsible.

“We have more money on hand than we believe any Legislature has ever had at one moment in time dealing with budget issues,” Patrick said. “There is no support for exceeding the spending cap, but that also means that when we leave, we will have approximately $4.5 to $5 billion in the state’s checking account.”

While a simple idea in theory, the spending cap in practice is a complicated measure that even some members of the Legislature have trouble grasping. The Texas Constitution says the government can’t grow faster than the state’s economy. State leaders set a growth rate of 11.68 percent for this session in December, based on the estimated rate of growth in Texans’ personal income over the next two years.

“For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it,” House Speaker Joe Straus said in a statement responding to Patrick’s proposals.

Well, gosh darn, Dan Patrick categorically refused to consider exceeding the spending cap in 2013 when some people wanted to more fully restore the cuts to public education spending, so right there is your first clue that this is little more than a gimmick and an attempt to hardcode Republican priorities into the state constitution. I’m a bit pressed for time, so I’ll point you to a couple of good analyses of this. First, from Ross Ramsey:

Lots of things would be possible right now without that spending cap in place; this year, it leaves as much as $6 billion in the state treasury that is out of budget writers’ reach. That has lawmakers dreaming of how to get around the cap, and there are ways to do that.

The first one is simple: Vote to spend more. If a majority of senators and representatives agree, they can spend more than the cap allows. This requires some intestinal fortitude from legislators, especially in primaries where voters will want to know how the state budget ballooned so quickly. Price-sensitive voters won’t like the answer unless they can be convinced that the extra money was well-spent.

A second, proposed Wednesday by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sens. Jane Nelson, Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa and Kevin Eltife, is complicated. They want to change the constitution to exempt spending on tax cuts and debt payments from the calculation of a spending cap. They would be able to take care of other items on their wish lists and keep spending past the cap on taxes and debt. Voters would have to approve, and it would take approval from two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate to get the measure to voters.

That’s more complicated, but it fits the recent pattern established by the state’s officeholders. They are scared to death of voters — so much so that they rely on a “Mother, may I?” approach to tough votes.

For two Novembers in a row, the state of Texas has gone to voters asking for more money, first for water and more recently for transportation.

Those didn’t involve taxes — lawmakers are allergic to that. But they were nervous about spending money, even on popular things — water projects during a drought and highway money for the state’s perpetual traffic jam — and asked voters for permission instead of just writing the checks themselves.

The state had the money it needed, sitting in the so-called Rainy Day Fund, but lawmakers didn’t want to just write a check themselves, for fear they would be labeled spendthrifts in the next round of primary elections.

Those would be Republican primary voters, of course, since those have always been the only voters Dan Patrick cares about or listens to. I’m old enough to remember back in 2011, during the (now known to have been mostly phony) budget crunch, when everyone compared that situation to households that cut back and tighten their belts and all those other virtuous things during hard times. Well, I don’t know how it is at your house, but at mine if the roof starts to leak or if the water heater breaks, I spend what I must to get it fixed. Somehow, that part of the household-as-budget-analogy never gets brought up.

And from Christopher Hooks:

The proposal makes a certain sense from the Democrats’ point of view—busting the spending cap probably means more money will go to state needs like education, even if Patrick wins his tax cuts. And it makes a certain sense for somebody like Eltife, who won’t have to stand in the way of tax cuts while other fiscal needs get attention, too.

But from Patrick’s POV, it’s a weirdly craven move. For one, he’s proposing to bust the spending cap—a sacred cow among conservatives—while saying loudly that he’s proposing to preserve it. And it contains a certain measure of political cowardice; if legislators wanted to, they could vote to bust the spending cap this session with a simple majority vote. Instead, they’re asking voters to make the hard choice for them, a move that seems eerily reminiscent of the dreaded Sacramento style of governance.

Furthermore, the amendment, if it passed, would privilege tax cuts over other kinds of spending. If the Lege ends up with $6 billion in additional revenue over the spending cap next session, it would virtually assure that that money would produce more tax cuts rather than, say, go back to schools or health care or roads.

Finally, it’s a move that’s emblematic of Patrick’s emerging leadership style—impulsive, seemingly thought-up on the fly and done with little consultation with his legislative partners. House Speaker Joe Straus gave an exceptionally cool statement in response: “For 36 years our state spending cap has helped enforce fiscal discipline, and we should be very cautious about any attempt to weaken it.”

But Patrick’s proposal points to a reality about the new era in the Lege: Patrick and the generally suburban-oriented senators who represent the new vanguard are not amenable to government spending and value tax cuts above almost all else.

Yes, that’s what this is about. It’s what basically all of the budgetary tricks and sleights-of-hand are about, including the spending cap itself. It’s a convenient excuse for not doing what you didn’t want to do anyway, like restoring cuts to public education, and it’s an opportunity to restrict the terms of debate further by forcing certain priorities ahead of others. I feel the same way about things like proposals to dedicate certain taxes that have otherwise been for general use to specific purposes. I get why Sen. Hinojosa is playing along, but I fear he’s being suckered. This is a bad deal, and we should hope the House rejects it.

The games our tax system plays

I find this just fascinating.

BagOfMoney

It’s been described as bribery, taxation without representation and a shady political maneuver. Others have called it an innovative way to deal with budgetary problems and get things done.

Ever since Texas lawmakers made it more difficult for cities to absorb suburbs into their boundaries 15 years ago, Houston has been quietly cutting deals with municipal utility districts to levy a 1 percent sales tax on purchases in neighboring communities.

The agreements for “limited purpose annexations” now generate tens of millions for Houston and for the utility districts, which split the revenue. But some question the appropriateness of the deals.

Houston seems to play off suburban fears of annexation to demand taxes in exchange for promises to leave them alone, said Paul Lewis, a professor of local politics and urban development at Arizona State University.

“It’s a kind of bribery,” he added.

Some local officials wonder whether the agreements lead to wasteful spending that lacks transparency. The revenue is not subject to the voter-approved revenue cap that has forced the city to lower its property tax rate and slash budgets. Critics also note that Houston provides no services to most of these suburban areas, whose residents can’t vote in city elections.

“It’s unconstitutional,” Fort Bend County Judge Bob Hebert said. “I thought we fought a war back in the 1700s on ‘taxation without representation.’ ”

Utility district leaders defend the agreements, noting that they take half the money collected and receive a contractual promise they will not be fully annexed for 30 years.

City officials agree that the agreements are fair. Census figures show that nearly two-thirds of those who work in Houston live outside of the city limits. City officials note that suburban residents attend plays in the Theater District, watch free concerts at Memorial Hermann Park and put wear and tear on city property.

“It is the primary tool we have to deal with the growth that goes on outside the city and the burden put on infrastructure by suburban citizens without our property tax,” Houston Finance Director Kelly Dowe said.

You can read the story and decide its morality and/or constitutionality for yourself. Personally, as a resident of Houston, I have no problems with it. What occurs to me in reading this is that it’s a natural outcome of our overall system of taxation in Texas, which is heavily dependent on sales and property taxes, and also on legal ways to minimize one’s sales and property taxes. There’s one way we could avoid all the problems associated with a tax system designed around political boundaries, and that’s to switch to one that is primarily dependent on income taxes instead. Of course, there are plenty of ways to game an income tax system, too, so it would most likely substitute one set of shenanigans for another. But at least it would be something different for us to argue about.