Jason Stanford, 4/26/2015 [Archive]

The Texas Two-Step on Taxes

By Jason Stanford

Sometimes the right decision is the one that is least wrong. Texas is looking at uncertain tax revenues from the oil patch and a growing stack of unpaid bills for the basic blocking and tackling functions of government, but what do the politicians do? Argue about which tax to cut, of course.

This is leadership, Texas style. If only the Texas had the parliamentary equivalent of bowling bumpers, some means to protect them from frittering away opportunity and resources on the unforced errors that almost completely comprise their legislative agenda. But if it weren't for fool's errands, the Texas legislature would have precious little to do.

Which brings is to the question currently bedeviling these titans of representative government: cut property taxes or sales taxes?

Behind door number one in the Senate is cutting property taxes, the favored idea of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his tea party faithful. Because of the interplay between rates and appraisals, this could be a tax cut in which your tax bill actually increases. Arguing in favor of this is that property taxes are too darn high, and also they ran for office promising to do something about this.

We tried this once before on a big scale. In 2006, Rick Perry wanted to dig himself out of low approval ratings by giving folks a big property tax cut. He says he cut property taxes by a third, but because of rising property values total tax collections increased, not fell. The point of a tax cut is for taxpayers to pay less in taxes, methinks.

Behind door number two in the House is cutting sales taxes for the first time in Texas history. Unlike the property taxes cut, cutting sales taxes would help everyone. Unlike anything else the Texas legislature does, this would disproportionately help those who have the least. Arguing against this is that helping the poor never gets anyone elected in a Texas Republican primary.

The business community has weighed in for the House bill cutting sales taxes by more than $2 billion, but before you get excited, that's the total, not per person. What this means to you is that you'd save 30 cents if you bought something for $100, which sounds a lot less impressive than $2 billion. But if you buy a new Ford F-150, you'll save $78.30.

Wait, that doesn't sound that impressive either, especially if you drive that new truck over a bridge that collapses. As long as Texas lawmakers are willing to do the wrong thing, they could at least think big. Both the House and Senate want to cut taxes by about $4.8 billion. For that kind of money, they could buy the Dallas Cowboys and have enough money left over to get a quarterback who's good in the clutch.

Of course, Texas could rededicate itself to something grander than reinforcing the delusion that public schools, higher education, and infrastructure are adequately funded. But hey, it's not like bridges are falling down and killing people except when they do. Might as well keep borrowing against tomorrow to feel better about today, which is all cutting taxes means here.

But doing the right thing is not on the menu at this meal. This isn't a choice between right and wrong but which imperfect option makes the least nonsense and what politicians can do without inciting someone to challenge them in the next Republican primary. Usually the two lenses of pragmatism and politics produce a blurry image. Not here. Cutting sales taxes is the clear choice.

So of course they're probably going to cut property taxes. God bless Texas, and please hurry.

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©Copyright 2015 Jason Stanford, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at stanford@oppresearch.com and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.

This column has been edited by the author. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.

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