THIS IS NOT THE BEST TIME TO BRING the subject up, with memories of April 15 so fresh, but … Texas needs a state income tax. It’s not going to get one, of course, even though the Legislature, prodded by Governor George W. Bush, is desperately searching for a way to lower school property taxes and replace them with other taxes to fund education. Opposition to a state income tax is the one sacred tenet of Texas politics. The last time any major political figure spoke strongly in favor of an income tax was in 1991, when Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock endorsed the idea. The public responded in such force and with such unanimity that the next time the Legislature met, there was a successful drive for a constitutional amendment that prohibits a personal income tax unless the voters approve it—a drive led by Bob Bullock.
Now Bush has raised the issue of tax reform anew. For two months after his State of the State speech on January 28, when he made property-tax relief the top priority of the legislative session, a handpicked committee of House leaders struggled with the problem of how to make the cuts without leaving the public schools short of money. Day after day, lobbyists, reporters, and staffers filled every available seat in the intimate hearing room two floors below ground level in the Capitol Extension. They stood five and six deep inside the doorways, they took over a raised bench normally reserved for TV cameras, they gossiped in the hallways outside, and a few settled for watching the proceedings on closed-circuit television. It was not just the subject matter that drew the crowds but also the political theater. The exchanges were frank and spontaneous, and every once in a while the spectators were rewarded with a glimpse of politicians plying their craft. When an urban legislator suggested ending agricultural tax breaks, a rural representative replied, “Do you remember what we talked about this morning? The answer is no.” The CEO of Continental Airlines, testifying against a sales tax on jet fuel, drew an audible gasp from the audience when he explained why he could say with certainty that his 17,000 employees were against the tax too: “That’s the way the food chain works.”
The committee of six Democrats