Wed March 11, 2015 1:50 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

The conservative Tax Foundation’s newest report says Texans last year hit their Tax Freedom Day on April 13, placing the state ahead of 31 others. But the report also indicates Texans may be complaining too much about their taxes.

In terms of their overall state and local tax burden, Texans ranked 47th among the states, and on tax burden per capita, Texas ranked 42nd.

At the same time, two of the state’s key taxes were bad news. Texas ranked 12th for combined state and local sales tax rates. On property taxes, the state ranks 6th on the property tax as a percentage of the value of a homeowner’s property, and ranked 14th on property tax collections per capita.

To read the full report, click here.

Wed March 11, 2015 12:15 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

An interesting piece is out there this week on the Brownsville federal judge who blocked President Obama’s executive order on immigration brought to my mind, again, that the debate on immigration and border security too often is about sound bites rather than people.

The article I’m referring to was about Judge Andrew S. Hanen, who was in a Baylor law school study group with conservative 5th Circuit Court of Appeals Justice Priscilla Owen and liberal Houston trial lawyer John Eddie Williams. While President Obama has portrayed the case as one of judge shopping by then-Attorney General Greg Abbott to find a right-wingnut jurist, this piece in the not-so-conservative New York Times leaves you with a completely different picture of Judge Hanen.

Mr. Williams said he differed with Judge Hanen on immigration, supporting Mr. Obama “100 percent.” But he said, “I would disagree with anyone who would say Andy Hanen has any prejudice. His decisions will always be based on sound legal grounds.”

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Tue March 10, 2015 3:17 pm By Erica Grieder

Another day, another press conference, another spending cap proposal, and in a delightful turn of events, this one’s actually reasonable. Earlier today, Kelly Hancock, a Republican from North Richland Hills, filed the legislation which would enable voters to weigh in on whether Texas should tighten its spending cap. As it stands, the spending cap applies to general spending, not all-funds spending; it restricts biennial spending growth in relation to population, inflation, and personal income; and it can be overridden by a simple majority vote. Under Hancock’s proposal, the spending cap would apply to all spending; it would restrict spending growth in relation to population and inflation; and if the Lege wants to override it, they would need two-thirds of each chamber to approve.

Over the years a number of Republicans have advocated retooling the spending cap along these lines. Greg Abbott is among them; he recommends the three aforementioned tweaks in his campaign platform (section IV of the PDF), and makes a succinct but cogent case for them. As is probably clear, I’m an actual fiscal conservative, not a big-government progressive describing myself as a fiscal conservative for electoral gain. As such, I commend Hancock for offering this proposal because it, too, is actually fiscally conservative.

The most controversial provision, from a substantive perspective, is the idea of pegging spending growth to population and inflation. Since the spending cap was first adopted, in 1978, Texas has seen population growth and economic growth; the two are correlated, and both are expected to continue. But economic growth can easily outpace population growth, and create its own demands; the most recent example would be the recent boom in oil and gas production, which spurred Texas’s GDP but badly strained infrastructure in the Eagle Ford Shale. Insofar as the personal income provision of the spending cap serves as a rough proxy for economic growth, it can be useful. (For that matter—it’s hard for me to say because I can’t get my head around the idea of Texas in a recession—the personal income provision may make for a tighter spending cap in the event of that contingency.) But as the oil boom example suggests, personal income isn’t a perfect proxy for GDP, and future personal income growth will continue to be reflected in state and local revenue streams via sales and property taxes.

Beyond that, if you’re a fiscal conservative, extending the spending cap to cover all spending makes sense for obvious reasons. So does the two-thirds provision. Abbott’s platform argues that the simple majority requirement “effectively renders the existing spending limit a meaningless ‘safeguard.’” I don’t fully agree. I think the simplicity of overriding the cap is meaningful in its own way. As I put it Wednesday, this is a historic commitment that has been repeatedly reaffirmed by the Lege, which has had the option of busting the cap a number of times, and only done so once, in 2007 (and even then, they didn’t spend all the money). And in light of Wednesday’s spending-cap sabotage proposals, I’d add that the simple-majority provision can serve as a safeguard in a different way: it shows that Wednesday’s proposals were motivated by politics, not necessity. However, as a result of Wednesday’s proposals, I have to agree with Abbott on the practical issue: if we can’t count on the Lege to respect the spending cap, we’d better make it tougher for them to ignore it.  

With all of that said: Hancock’s proposal is impossible to reconcile with the aforementioned proposals to exempt tax relief and debt serve from counting against the cap, which, as I argued yesterday, are tantamount to sabotage. (And Hancock, to his credit, isn’t trying to reconcile them: the only people who’ve signed on to the latter are Dan Patrick, Jane Nelson, Kevin Eltife, and Chuy Hinojosa.) Hancock’s proposal would make the spending cap a more powerful constraint. As a result, it would give fiscal liberals more incentive to try to get around the spending cap. The tax relief and debt service proposals, meanwhile, are case studies in sneaking past the spending cap. They set a clear and risky precedent. They open the door to ongoing ontological negotiations. If the Lege decides to exempt tax relief on the basis that “tax relief” sounds conservativey, it’s not going to be remotely hard for anyone to make similar arguments in the future. Why should we count Medicaid spending against the spending cap, for example, when Texas’s Medicaid spending is necessarily determined by the federal government’s parameters?

To lump these proposals together as some kind of fiscally conservative reform package is absurd, inconsistent, and dishonest. If Nelson’s exemption passes, it would directly undermine the reforms Hancock is proposing. And Hancock’s proposal, from a fiscally conservative perspective, is sound. All the more reason to oppose the others. 

Tue March 10, 2015 1:01 pm By R.G. Ratcliffe

In 1993 then-Governor Ann Richards thought she had struck a deal to bring Apple Computers to Round Rock. If the Williamson County Commissioners just granted a tax abatement, Apple would build an $80 million customer support center, providing a $300 million boost to the local community support for up to 4,500 permanent new jobs.

To Richards’ chagrin, though, the county commissioners voted down the deal because Apple, at the time, was one of the few American corporations providing health benefits to same-sex partners. In a county where the Christian Coalition had made major inroads into local government, such a corporate policy was an anathema. The deciding vote against Apple was Commissioner David S. Hays. “If I had voted yes,” Hays said, “I would have had to walk into my church with people saying, ‘There is the man who brought homosexuality to Williamson County.”

Now, 22 years later, as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether prohibitions on same-sex marriage are unconstitutional, Texas once again is debating business versus the Bible.

Quoting Scripture, a Christian conservative rally is set for later this month at the Capitol to oppose the state issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And a proposed state constitutional amendment to protect the religious freedom of businesses has one of the state’s largest business organizations standing in opposition. At the same time, numerous corporations that are either headquartered in Texas or with substantial operations in the state are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage.

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Mon March 9, 2015 3:05 pm By Erica Grieder

As I said on Wednesday, the politics of the Texas Senate’s proposals to bust the spending cap are clear and unmistakeable: the budget chiefs want to exceed the spending cap, but they’re not willing to be transparent or accountable about it. That much is clear from Dan Patrick’s comments at the press release: unless they exempt certain types of spending, “when we leave, we will have approximately $4.5 to $5 billion in the state’s checking account.”

The only slight variation on that explanation that I can see would be that the Senate’s budget chiefs expect these proposals to fail. They can be killed by the House or by the governor’s veto or by voters, who would have to approve constitutional amendments before the proposals could take effect. Such a stunt may seem like a win-win for conservatives: either they succeed in providing property tax relief and paying down debt or they tried (at which point they will, perhaps, claim to have been thwarted by RINOs led by Joe Straus or by Abbott, who may, for all we know, face a 2018 primary challenge from Patrick).

Such a stunt might be an effective short-term political gambit. Immediately, Michael Quinn Sullivan of EmpowerTexans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility approved the proposals; as predicted, he either fell for the ruse or is willing to play along out of tribal solidarity. Or it may not: the number of senators who have refrained from commenting makes me think that many of them are ambivalent, at least. And either way, I don’t think it’s respectable.

Meanwhile, on further reflection, I’ve become convinced that these proposals, if passed, would be profoundly damaging to Texas’s future, far more than simply overriding the cap would be. And I’ve become sincerely distressed that state leaders are willing to put so much at risk for no good reason—at the risk of being melodramatic, this is basically how I feel right now.

But I’ll address that tomorrow. Today I want to address the proposals themselves, because I’ve heard from a number of fiscal conservatives who are torn over the suggestion: they don’t like the idea of busting the cap, but they do like the idea of property tax relief and paying down debt. I understand that reaction, but if you look at the proposals in more detail, I’m not sure that either is a worthwhile reason to override the spending cap—much less sabotage it—from a fiscally conservative perspective.  

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