Four years ago, the Texas Legislature faced an unprecedented $10 billion funding shortfall. Nevertheless, we balanced the state budget without a tax increase.
Today, the state’s fiscal fortunes are completely reversed. Billions of dollars are available, but in many ways taxpayers are at more risk than ever before. Nothing is more tempting for some policymakers than to spend surplus money on new and expanded programs, putting taxpayers on the financial hook into the indefinite future.
Fortunately, our legislative leadership has already signaled its intent to build a responsible budget. The introduced version of the budget would increase true general revenue spending by less than four percent over two years. This is likely less of an increase than the state’s population growth plus inflation.
At the same time, the legislature is debating how best to spend above a constitutional spending cap that voters approved 30 years ago. That cap has never before been formally breached and many are understandably hesitant to be the first to do so. The real issue, though, is local property tax relief.
Nine months ago, the legislature passed a truly historic property tax relief measure. Part of that tax relief was funded through increased taxes – mainly business and tobacco taxes. A smaller but significant portion of the property tax relief was funded by substituting state surplus funds, creating a true tax cut rather than just a tax swap for Texas’ overburdened taxpayers.
Since property taxes are only levied at the local level, property tax relief funded by the state represents new state spending. The effect of this change is that the Texas Legislature will take on a greater share of the cost of public education. So massive is the property tax relief to begin this year and show up on our next property tax statement that it would be very difficult to cut the budget enough to stay under the state’s spending limit.
The Texas Constitution specifies that the legislature may exceed the spending cap by passing a resolution by record vote of a majority of both houses. That resolution must declare an emergency, state what it is, and include the precise amount to be appropriated above the cap. Understandably, fiscal conservatives are nervous about such a vote. Any issue can be demagogued and the vagaries of state finance are such that the idea of voting to exceed the cap looks politically risky.
Even more risky, however, are the potential unintended consequences of another idea that has gained some traction – that of passing a constitutional amendment to give the legislature a pass on the constitutional spending limit any time local tax relief is involved. This has the virtue of explicitly making tax relief the exception and it puts responsibility on Texas voters.
The risk is that any time modest local tax relief is passed in the future, the spending cap can be violated more for the sake of new spending than for property tax relief. The current cap is based on estimated growth in personal income – a cap generous enough to cover any need for expanding state programs. The legislature could spend just up to the cap and cover its bloated spending with some miniscule property tax relief.
With a simple resolution, legislators could agree to exceed the cap only with the assurance that they are voting on a prudent budget. A constitutional amendment would open a gaping loophole where future runaway spending can waltz through, handcuffed to token property tax relief.
Texans need to understand that as long as current state spending increases at the low rate already proposed, a vote to exceed the constitutional spending cap is a vote for promised tax relief…and nothing more.
The Honorable Talmadge Heflin served 11 terms in the Texas House and is a former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. He is presently a Visiting Research Fellow in the Center for Fiscal Policy Studies at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute in Austin.