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March 21st, 2004:

On the receiving end of obsession

In the past couple of hours, I appear to have gotten several hundred referrals from search engine queries for some variation on Diane Zamora. I presume someone’s running a bot rather than doing this manually, unless they have amazingly fast keyboard and mouse abilities. Whoever you are, what is it you’re looking for that you didn’t find the first 300 times? Or is today National Google Diane Zamora Day and I just missed it on my calendar?

Sunday school finance op-eds

State Rep. Scott Hochberg (D, Houston) makes some good points in this piece in which he defends the much-maligned and marked for death Robin Hood system of distributing property tax revenues to school districts. Here’s something you probably didn’t know:

Robin Hood has been blamed so many times for district budget problems that many taxpayers believe their Houston Independent School District taxes are being sent to some other district.

They aren’t. HISD is one of the 889 districts that receives money from the state. Only 132 districts, with less than 12 percent of the state’s public school students, give up any money raised locally.

132 out of 1021 districts give up local money under Robin Hood. You’d think with those numbers it’d be more of a third rail than Social Security, but you’d be wrong. I wonder how many new Republican state reps were elected on a platform that included revamping Robin Hood from districts that receive its funds. I’m not saying there aren’t still reasons to want to overhaul the system – pretty much everyone agrees that it isn’t working well enough to meet the state’s needs – but I’ll bet a lot of people voted against their own interests without fully realizing it.

Sure, those 132 districts want to keep all the property taxes they raise. And the leadership in Austin desperately wants to let them do that, because it is great politics. But even after they make their Robin Hood payments, those districts have at least $600 more to spend on each comparable student than does HISD or any of the other districts receiving state funds. That’s already a huge advantage in hiring teachers, setting class sizes and offering programs.

Eliminate Robin Hood payments by those districts, as some have recommended, and their advantage, on average, goes up to $2,600 per student, at a cost to the rest of us of $1 billion per year. Some solution!

Equity among the districts, the reason for Robin Hood in the first place, will still need to be addressed by whatever replaces it. There are indications that Republicans whose constituents are mostly in property-poor districts, such as State Sen. Todd Staples, recognize its importance and may cross the aisle to work with Democrats on a compromise. Governor Perry better doublecheck his math before he calls that special session.

Meanwhile, Clay Robison notes the study by Stuart Greenfield that the Quorum Report funded and fills in a couple of details.

If you own an average valued house of $150,000 and pay the average property tax rate of $1.46 per $100 valuation, a one-third cut would reduce your annual property tax bill by about $750, Greenfield says.

He warns that the reduced property tax deduction also would raise your federal income taxes by $113. The lost tax break couldn’t be recouped from higher sales taxes because sales taxes aren’t deductible from your federal return. A state income tax would be deductible.

What’s more, Greenfield adds, the higher the value of your house — which is the single biggest federal tax deduction for most Texas filers — the bigger your net loss as property taxes are reduced and sales taxes or any other form of taxation (other than a state income tax) is increased or imposed.

There also is talk, for example, of increasing the state cigarette tax or creating a new, broad-based business activity tax. Whatever the merits of those proposals, they also wouldn’t provide a replacement federal tax deduction for individual filers.

Many Texans who don’t file itemized federal tax returns are renters, and they wouldn’t necessarily realize the full benefits of property tax cuts or other tax breaks that their landlords might receive. But they certainly would pay any higher sales tax or, if business taxes were increased, would see higher costs for some goods and services.

The annual per capita sales tax load in Texas is $642. But since even the youngest children are included in that calculation, the average taxpayer actually pays more, a load that would be significantly increased if the Legislature either raises the tax rate or expands coverage to additional goods and services.

Obviously, $113 is a long way off from $750, so the final numbers will depend heavily on the kind of taxes that are imposed to replace the property tax revenue. The point, which I noted as well, is simply that whatever those taxes are, they won’t be deductible. You won’t be getting any of that back no matter what.

TypeKey

The folks at Six Apart, makers of MovableType, are getting close to releasing a new version of theit software that will allow blog owners to deal with unwanted comments (comment spam and anonymous drive-by abusives) in an integrated fashion with a service called TypeKey. I’m going to have to take a close look at it when it comes out, but I like the general idea. Jay Allen, the guy who gave us MT Blacklist, is sufficiently excited that he thinks MT 3.0 and TypeKey means that MT Blacklist’s days are numbered. Not everyone is as sanguine as he is, but for now count me in the looking-forward-to-it camp.