Late one afternoon in early June, a chain-smoking, dark-haired man in his mid-forties idly watched an Austin convenience store cashier violate the law. Not until the man got home did he discover that the cashier had illegally charged him sales tax on his sack of groceries—on the milk, onions, and bread; on every single item, in fact, all of which happened to be exempt under the Texas sales tax law.
It was not the los of the 25 cents that chagrined him; it was the firm suspicion that the store had a deliberate policy of tacking a phony “tax” onto every ticket, unless challenged by the customer. He suspected that, by his absentmindedness, he’d fallen victim to one of the countless petty sales tax rip-offs the State Comptroller has been trying to stamp out. He resolved to do something about it on his next visit. And that’s bad news for the store. Because the customer’s name was Bob Bullock, and he is the Comptroller.
The sales tax is Texas’ most prolific source of government revenue; 38 percent ($1.3 billion) of last year’s state tax collections were derived from what the law books officially call the “Limited Sales, Excise, and Use Tax.” The closest contender—oil and natural gas production taxes—brought in almost exactly half as much ($664 million), and the principal “business tax—corporation franchise taxes-was far down the list with just $167 million.
If the adjective “limited” sounds like wishful thinking to describe a levy that seems to sprout like a weed at the foot of practically every sales receipt, keep in mind that the sales tax statute is an intricate tangle of exemptions. These are at best chaotic, often whimsical, at worst nonsensical—nothing so simple and clear-cut as the popular labels of “food” and “drugs” would make them appear. For the average Texan, the sales tax is the sole everyday rendezvous with the tax collector; and, because of its exemptions, it is also the tax you are most likely to overpay.
That danger has worsened lately—an unintended side effect of Comptroller Bullock’s energetic campaign to crack down on retail stores that charge the tax to their customers and then fail to pass the money along to the state treasury. When the colorful Bullock—who has had several previous incarnations in Texas politics, including four years as a state legislator, five as a savvy, freewheeling lobbyist, one as an assistant attorney general in charge of antitrust, and three more as Governor Preston Smith’s controversial secretary of state—arrived at the Comptroller’s office