If you thought victories by moderates at the end of the last legislative session ended the debate on conservative social issues like the bathroom bill and restrictions on local governments, think again. With House Speaker Joe Straus’s impending retirement, and a Democratic miracle in the elections looking more unlikely by the day, there’s a good chance the Republican primaries may result in an even more conservative Legislature. So, if you want to know a likely agenda for the 2019 legislative session, look no farther than the non-binding referenda on the Republican Party of Texas primary ballot.
The following eleven items are presented as a kind of opinion poll on the ballot; Republican primary voters can answer Yes or No to each statement. The results could determine whether the bathroom bill returns, or if private school vouchers become the topic of further debate. If the referenda are supported, conservative Republicans will go into the session saying the voters demand these actions. Because of the weight that these ballot propositions will carry, Republicans who normally only vote in the general election, educators, business people, and even some Democrats may want to vote in the Republican primary.
I’ll go through each statement and give my opinion on what they might mean for you and the future of Texas.
1. Texas should replace the property tax system with an appropriate consumption tax equivalent.
The property tax system sucks. Because I live somewhere with rapidly rising property appraisals, I call it a tax on unrealized capital gains. But pretty much any change is temporary at best. One reason the property tax system is so difficult to fix is that someone who lives in an area where property values are stable does not want to pay more to cut the taxes of someone who lives in an area where values are skyrocketing. And everyone rules out replacing the property tax with an income tax.
Many Republicans have advocated for years to replace property taxes with a consumption tax. The hidden version of this is to embrace the liberal European Value Added Tax that is levied against goods before they reach the final consumer. The other version is just to broaden or raise the state sales tax.
The combined property taxes raised by school districts, cities, counties and special districts in 2015 was $56.1 billion. To replace that with sales taxes would require increasing the state sales tax rate from the current 6.25 percent to 23 percent, according to estimates from the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. Add another two cents if you shop in one of those local option cities or counties and you’re up to almost 25 cents on every taxable dollar you spend.
Using the federal IRS sales tax calculator, the average state and local sales tax payment by a family of four with an income of between $50,000 and $60,000 currently is $1,141. The Republican Party of Texas ballot proposal likely would raise their sales tax payments to $3,425 a year.
2. No governmental entity should ever construct or fund construction of toll roads without voter approval.
A declaration by Governor Greg Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick to the state highway commission to stop all planning for toll roads has brought highway construction in Texas to a halt. The Republican mantra for years has been that people who use something should be the ones who pay for it. There was a fairly legitimate debate on whether to put a toll on a previously free highway, but up until now there has been no effort to stop new toll roads. In fact, that was former Governor Rick Perry’s preferred method of building new roads. The Republican Party’s explanation for its ballot proposition is that it would put toll road construction “directly into the hands of the people paying for it.” But does that mean as statewide vote, or just a vote in the area where a toll road is going?
This is political pandering to a small group of anti-toll-road activists, and it could strangle the state’s infrastructure growth. Many companies look at transportation when deciding on whether to relocate to Texas. A debate over tolls versus debt construction versus pay-as-you-go from state revenue may be worth having, but just shutting everything down is foolish.
3. Republicans in the Texas House should select their Speaker nominee by secret ballot in a binding caucus without Democratic influence.
This is purely political. And what consequence would a Republican House member face if they bucked the caucus when a vote for speaker is taken on the House floor? The party can only enforce party discipline through the primary election process. And that is what is happening right now as interest groups back candidates who are campaigning against those Republicans who supported Straus as speaker last session.
4. Texas should require employers to screen new hires through the free E-Verify system to protect jobs for legal workers.
E-Verify is the federal system that allows employers to check the legal work status of new employees. Making it mandatory is part of the federal immigration debate. Essentially, it turns businesses into an enforcer of federal immigration law. In the states that have mandated its use, employers have gotten around the requirement by hiring contractors instead of employees.
5. Texas families should be empowered to choose from public, private, charter or home school options for their children’s education, using tax credits or exemptions without government constraints or intrusion.
This is the private school voucher question. Religious conservatives tend to favor it, while educators and rural voters usually oppose private school vouchers.
6. Texas should protect the privacy and safety of women and children in spaces such as bathrooms, locker rooms, and showers in all Texas schools and government buildings.
If this measure receives approval, watch for the bathroom bill debate to return in the next legislative session. Texas businesses and Chambers of Commerce widely opposed the legislation to limit bathroom access to the gender on a person’s birth certificate, believing it would make it difficult to convince corporations to relocate to Texas because of the inability to recruit and retain progressive employees.
7. I believe abortion should be abolished in Texas.
This proposition makes no specific recommendations. But if it receives strong support, it might signal conservative lawmakers that their voters will support an anything-goes philosophy on new abortion restrictions.
8. Vote fraud should be a felony in Texas to help ensure fair elections.
Casting an illegal ballot—either by pretending to be someone else or false registration—already is a felony in Texas. Improperly assisting someone else to cast a ballot is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000. A Houston public media study published in October 2016 found the state attorney general’s office had “prosecuted fewer than 90 cases of voter fraud since 2002, compared to 64 million votes cast over the same period.”
9. Texas demands that Congress completely repeal Obamacare.
Texas never expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and the recently passed federal tax bill does away with the individual mandate next year. Not much of Obamacare remains in Texas.
10. To slow the growth of property taxes, yearly revenue increases should be capped at 4 percent, with increases in excess of 4 percent requiring voter approval.
Local governments killed a similar proposal in the 2017 legislative session. At present, school districts face an automatic election if their tax revenues are raised more than eight percent, but voters have to petition for rollback elections in other jurisdictions. Such a proposal would strangle government services in fast-growth cities and counties, especially if much of the revenue growth comes from new construction, not just property appraisal increases.
11. Tax dollars should not be used to fund the building of stadiums for professional or semi-professional sports teams.
This does not address school stadiums. Do local communities benefit from the financial impact of investing in a stadium for a privately owned sports franchise? This debate goes on nationally. What you can say for certain is that if the state forbids the practice, it will be like unilateral disarmament. Sports teams that want a new stadium, will simply try to relocate to a city or county that will build them a stadium.
In conclusion, for more than two decades now, the Texas Republican primary has determined the statewide outcome in November. Despite anger by some at President Trump and a fired-up Democratic base, it does not look like a blue wave will sweep across Texas. A few seats may change hands, but not enough to alter the basic political dynamic of the Lone Star State. So if any of these issues are meaningful to you, you may want to think about voting Republican on March 6.
R.G. Ratcliffe can be reached at [email protected] or 512-320-6961.