Pothole Priorities

By BOB PALMER03

When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott warns the legislature, the treasury won’t have enough money to fund every item on their collective wish list, you have justifiable reason to be skeptical. After all, the Texas economy is rolling like a downhill freight train with no brakes. Sales tax collections pour into Austin like Longhorn alumni on a football weekend. You would think the state could fund property tax reduction, teacher raises and maybe a couple of social issues, as well.

Comptroller Glenn Hegar explains why you would be wrong and Abbott right. You may not like it, but your hemorrhoids will thank him. In July, Hegar, citing the Texas boom, raised the revenue estimate for the present and coming bienniums. This little noted event was important because the legislature can only spend up to the amount Hegar says is available.

“Through June of fiscal 2018, sales and use tax collections, our largest source of state tax revenue, have exceeded fiscal 2017 collections over the same period by more than 10 percent,” Hegar reported.

The state is projected to finish 2019 with a $2.67 billion surplus which the legislature will probably spend before it can reach the new budget with amendments to the old budget. Another type of restraint awaits the sales tax revenue arriving in 2020. “Proposition 7, an amendment to the Texas Constitution approved by Texas voters in 2015, provides that the first $2.5 billion in sales tax collections exceeding $28 billion in any fiscal year must be deposited to the State Highway Fund,” Hegar reminded everyone.

I voted, along with a majority of Texas voters, to establish highway construction as the top priority for new tax revenue. Our growing state needs roads to support the additional traffic – both literally and figuratively.

Hegar cautioned that factors like disputes over a border wall, withdrawal from NAFTA and tariffs could have a negative impact on Texas’ international trade which is the second-largest in the United States.

Still, the legislature should have a few pennies to spread around. Abbott wants to put a cap on how much local entities can raise property taxes at 2.5 percent. A similar proposal died in the last session. This would hurt schools and growth communities but does have some appeal.

The governor would take some of sting out of the cut with improved state funding for education. Many times, the state has mandated teacher pay raises, but left it up to the local districts to find the money. Abbott would have the state share in that burden.

You don’t have to look far to find someone in need of more state funds. The state will soon tell Marion County to build a new jail but won’t give commissioners money to do it. The county also picks up the increasing tab for attorneys appointed to defend folks in jail and represent families and children in disputes with Child Protective Services.

Jefferson would like a grant to build a new City Hall, but the best it can find is a loan. These local “bread and butter” issues appear far down the funding priority list, at least for now. Hegar could raise his estimate again or the legislature could heed the phone calls from home.

The legislature could do one thing to hold down property taxes. They could pass a law that any school district building a new football stadium or gym forfeits all state funding for the next five years. The football fans may not like it, but at least they get to ride to the road games on a smooth “Prop 7” highway.

 

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