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May 8th, 2019:

The tax swap is dead

For this session, at least. Most likely, barring anything strange.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, the top public education leader in the Texas House, postponed two items of legislation Tuesday that would pay for long-term, ongoing school district tax cuts by raising sales taxes — effectively killing any chance of passing the legislation this year.

Huberty tabled until 2021 — the next legislative session — House Joint Resolution 3 and the accompanying House Bill 4621, which would ask voters to increase the state sales tax by one penny to buy down school district property taxes. The Houston Republican’s move came the day after the Senate, headed by a lieutenant governor who had endorsed the proposal, stripped such a provision from its version of the school finance bill in what was perhaps a signal that the measure would be dead in the upper chamber anyway.

Despite Tuesday’s postponement, the idea could still be revived this session; lawmakers could use a different bill as a vehicle to fund school district tax cuts.

Huberty criticized members of the Senate on Tuesday who “have spent their whole careers calling for property tax relief” but did not vote for the school finance measure the day before. And he repeatedly affirmed questions by House colleagues that suggested state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who leads the upper chamber’s property tax committee, had failed to take responsibility for coming up with a viable mechanism for property tax cuts when he was part of a school finance commission last year and during the current legislative session.

Bettencourt has arguably been the most vocal GOP senator opposed to the tax swap proposal, a position that has caught some by surprise since he’s closely aligned — both personally and professionally — with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made clear he supports the measure. Bettencourt marked himself “present, not voting” on the school finance bill Monday, while the majority of the upper chamber approved the legislation. And on Tuesday morning, ahead of business in both chambers, Bettencourt took to Facebook to once again reiterate his opposition to the tax swap, saying there is “simply no need to raise taxes even higher.”

In response to House members’ criticisms, Bettencourt said he’s long been clear about his concern that the tax swap proposal could amount to a tax increase. When Huberty proposed that the tax swap devote 80% of the new sales tax revenue to property tax cuts and the remainder to public school funding, for example, “I immediately red-flagged that,” Bettencourt said.

“Emotions run high when bills fail,” Bettencourt said. “If you have the votes, pass your bill — don’t blame somebody in the other chamber. That’s just kind of a rule that I’ve learned.”

[…]

On Tuesday morning, before the House gaveled in for the day, Bonnen told House Republicans during a caucus meeting that there would be no point in bringing up the proposal for a vote in the lower chamber if it was considered dead in the Senate, according to multiple people who were at the gathering. Caucus members at the meeting, according to those sources, largely agreed with Bonnen, who said the Senate stripping such a provision from its version of the school finance bill Monday suggested the upper chamber couldn’t muster enough support to approve a tax swap proposal.

After Huberty postponed the tax swap legislation, a Bonnen spokesperson said in a statement that the proposal had been “an opportunity for lawmakers to further reduce property taxes” and sustain tax relief found in the lower chamber’s school finance bill.

“Speaker Bonnen believes it is in the House’s best interest to devote the limited time left in session to our Day One priorities — passing legislation to provide meaningful school finance and property tax reform for all Texans,” the statement read.

See here for some background. To an extent, I agree with Bettencourt, in that a sales tax increase is a terrible idea. Of course, Bettencourt sees no need to pay for tax cuts. He just wants to cut them, and nothing else really matters as far as he’s concerned. The tax swap is a terrible idea that deserved to die, but at least Huberty was trying to pay for what he wanted to do. What happens next, with school finance and everything else, we’ll see.

First test drive of Harris County voting centers

Overall I thought things went well for the Saturday election – final results were all in by 9 PM or so – but Campos observed a few issues.

Diane Trautman

Commentary is all for the voting centers on Election Day. If my precinct is in the Heights, I can vote on Election Day at the Community Center in Baytown if I am with my Dad. The issue is how the results are reported and presented to the public on Election Night.

When the first Election Day results were posted at 8:19 pm, the Election Day posting said Precincts Reporting 296 of 296 = 100%. In the past that meant all the precincts were counted. Everything is in. It makes it appear that since all the precincts are reporting they have all been counted, like it says when you look at the individual races on the posting. For example, in the South Houston Mayoral race, it said all 3 precincts had been counted but in the Election Day vote column, zero votes had been tallied. That’s the image I posted on my Today’s Take tweet.

If you go to the @HarrisVotes Election Day – Beta page you get a more detailed view of the reported votes. On that page, if you look closely at a tab, it told you how many of the voting centers had reported. There were 111 voting centers, which are the voting precinct locations and many precincts are combined – that’s why we don’t have 296 voting centers.

The Election Day – Beta page was first introduced and used in the December 11 State Senate District 6 Special Election and again for the State House District 145 Special Election and Runoff. In those races, voting centers were not used and they were the only races on the ballot. In those elections, on the Beta page, when you looked at the precinct-by-precinct results, a green check by the precinct indicated all the votes from the precinct were counted and complete. This past Saturday, on the Beta page, every precinct had the green check at the first posting at 8:19 pm even though some of them had not reported or counted a single Election Day vote like in South Houston.

Commentary got a few calls from folks wondering what to make of the way the results were being reported and it took part of the evening for me to figure it out.

@HarrisVotes needs to figure out a way to report and present where most folks can understand. If you can vote at any of the voting centers in the county on Election Day, then you are not going know if a voting precinct has been fully counted until the last voting center has reported. That is a significant departure from the past. So, in a very close district race, you are going to have to wait until all the voting centers in the county have reported for you to know whether you won or lost. Maybe @HarrisVotes can post which voting centers have reported so we can get a sense of what is out there.

@HarrisVotes should have added to their tweet yesterday that they understand there was a bit of confusion on how some were interpreting the posting of the results Saturday evening and they will be working to resolve those for future elections. It would probably be Ok if they ask some of the pros who regularly visit their webpage at 7 pm on Election Night for our thoughts. Just saying.

In a way, @HarrisVotes is lucky they rolled it out for this past election and they can fine tune it so to speak. If they would have rolled it out next March for the party primaries where more meaner folks than Commentary are involved, a sh_tstorm would have ensued on Election Night.

I noticed the same thing in the Pasadena City Council elections. Initially, while the election night returns page was saying that all 296 precincts had reported, it was showing single digit Election Day vote totals in each of the individual Council races. That sure didn’t seem right. On the plus side, the next time I refreshed the page, maybe 15 or 20 minutes later, a fuller set of numbers had been reported. I don’t remember now if there was another update after that – I was paying more attention to the San Antonio Mayor’s race by that time – but because I couldn’t rely on the number of precincts reporting to tell me the state of progress I had to keep checking in to see if anything had changed. After awhile, it was clear that we were done.

This is surely fixable, and it’s the reason why the shakedown cruise was done during a low-turnout May election. I think a running total of vote centers that have reported, along with a table showing which ones and where they are – be sure to include what State Rep District they’re in, with City Council district for races like the one this November – would fit the bill. We could approximate that in the past by seeing how many precincts were yet to report in district races; it was how I felt confident, with a hundred or so precincts still out, that Lina Hidalgo was going to catch up to and pass Ed Emmett in 2018, by noting that nearly all of the outstanding precincts were in heavily Dem districts. Give us something like that now, and all will be well. Candidates, reporters, and other election nerds will thank you.

Here’s the Mayor’s budget

A lot of people won’t like it, but this is what happens when you heap a big expense on top of an already tight fiscal situation.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday proposed to close Houston’s $179 million budget gap for the upcoming fiscal year by tapping into the city’s reserves, eliminating more than 60 vacant positions and laying off more than 300 city employees.

Turner’s proposal would reduce the overall budget of city departments by about $36 million, a figure that includes layoffs of firefighters, fire cadets and municipal workers, all of whom have received pink slips.

The mayor’s budget also would draw $116 million from the city’s reserves, which Turner said the city can afford because it will end the 2019 fiscal year with a higher-than expected general fund balance. The next fiscal year begins July 1.

Laying out the final budget proposal of his first term, Turner framed the financial plan as conservative and said his administration “scrubbed every department” in search of places to trim costs. The budget also uses a conservative projection for the amount of new property tax revenue Houston may take in, Turner said.

[…]

Turner said a large chunk of the 2.2 percent increase in general fund spending is driven by the cost of Proposition B, the voter-approved charter amendment that grants firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. The raises will cost $79 million during the next budget year, Turner said.

District E Councilman Dave Martin agreed with Turner’s fiscal assessment of the budget, contending that the city has faced a challenging situation with small revenue growth projections — about 2 percent in property taxes and 1 percent across all sources — amid large added costs such as Prop B.

“We’ve been working on this for nine months, accumulating a healthy fund balance, not filling slots that were available for employment,” said Martin, who chairs the council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

Under Turner’s proposal, public safety — which includes the fire and police departments, the municipal courts and emergency operations — would make up about 58 percent of the general fund budget, at a cost of $1.5 billion. The fire department’s budget would increase to $558 million, a 4.5 percent boost over how much the city estimates it will spend on the department this year.

The fire department was allocated $503 million in the current budget. Total projected spending, however, has grown to about $534 million with the city covering Prop B raises retroactive to Jan. 1. Turner said the adjusted paychecks would go out Friday.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s elected budget watchdog, said he does not feel confident that Turner has accurately projected Prop B’s cost because the mayor has yet to supply his office with financial data backing up the $79 million estimate. Brown also wants to generate his own independent figure, which he said he cannot do without certain incentive pay data.

Turner told reporters Tuesday that the city attorney, Ron Lewis, had determined the city’s interpretation of Prop B would withstand legal challenges.

Still, Brown said the city has little breathing room if a judge rules the firefighters are owed more. He noted that the budget would dip the city’s target fund balance within striking distance of the minimum level allowed by city policy. The city’s reserves must make up at least 7.5 percent of the city’s general fund budget, and the 2020 budget target would leave the balance at $171 million — 7.9 percent, $9 million above the threshold.

“What if a judge says, ‘You know what, we think that this is $100 million,’ and we need to pay immediately this additional money?” Brown said. “Where is that money coming from?”

I see on Twitter that some firefighters have highlighted the above quote from Controller Brown, while in this article Marty Lancton again complains that Mayor Turner isn’t implementing Prop B exactly the way he wants it to be implemented. Well, someone has to talk about the cost of Prop B. As for Brown, he’s just doing his job. And the possibility that the cost of Prop B could go up on a judge’s order is a good point and more than a little disturbing.

From here, the budget goes through Council, where they can propose amendments and do whatever they’re going to do with it. I’ll be very interested to see if any of the ones that voted against the layoffs have anything constructive to suggest for how to avoid, or at least reduce them. The budget vote is scheduled for June 5, so mark your calendar.