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Going through the couch cushions

“Taxes” may be a dirty word, but the Lege is busy looking for revenue in other places.

“Right now, there is a tremendous amount of effort being invested in identifying new revenues that avoid being called a tax bill,” said Dale Craymer of the business-based Texas Taxpayers and Research Association.

“Politically, a lot of members have pledged not to raise taxes,” he said. “Obviously, members are seeing the impact of the budget proposal, and there’s a desire to try and raise new revenue to protect the budget without violating the no-new-taxes pledge.”

Some revenue measures already have been filed. Details are lacking on others as lawmakers work to get them in shape in advance of Friday’s bill-filing deadline.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, is having hearings through the next several weeks on measures including his House Bill 257, which would yield $72 million by having unclaimed property revert more quickly to the state.

Hilderbran said he also has legislation to boost Comptroller Susan Combs’ enforcement and that his panel will look at efforts to strengthen audits, hike tax penalties and close loopholes.

Here’s HB257, which has been referred to committee. One revenue-enhancer that has made it out of committee is Rep. Villarreal’s HB658, which is aimed at closing a corporate tax loophole. By themselves, none of these bills adds up to much, but all together they’ll have some effect. Assuming they all pass and get signed, of course, which is far from a guarantee.

In addition to these revenue enhancers, there are the usual accounting tricks that delay payments till the next biennium, of which we saw plenty in 2003. They can save substantial amounts for this budget, but since they do have to be paid, they put that much more pressure on the next budget. The big ticket items are still the Rainy Day Fund – HB275, the bill filed by Rep. Jim Pitts to use RDF funds to balance the prior biennium’s budget, may come to the floor for a vote next week – and fixing the structural deficit. Unfortunately, that and anything else that would have a more significant effect are off the table for the session.

[Rep. Harvey HIlderbran, chair of the Ways and Means Committee,] said he sees opportunity in some of the recommendations made by the Legislative Budget Board that could generate $500 million or more by better enforcing existing law, closing some loopholes and tinkering with some tax exemptions.

One proposal, for instance, would allow the state to claim forgotten bank accounts, uncashed checks and security deposits if they are left dormant for three years rather than the current five years. That change would generate $72 million.

Hilderbran would not, however, follow the path of his predecessor , state Rep. Rene Oliveira, a Brownsville Democrat who last year identified as much as $1.5 billion in sales tax exemptions he said were ripe for elimination.

“That’s a tax hike, and that’s not what we’re going to be working on this session,” Hilderbran said. “We’re not changing the code substantially or significantly. We’re just basically making it more effective.”

That narrow approach will probably produce a relatively small amount of the $27 billion needed if the state were to maintain the current level of services in the 2012-13 budget.

Fixing the big problems, such as the revamped and underperforming business tax, will have to wait until the next legislative session in 2013.

Ideology trumps need. It’s not just Hilderbran – if it were, it might be possible to generate some leverage on him, but he has plenty of company in his stance. The Republicans may tinker, but they’re comfortable with not fixing what’s broken.

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3 Comments

  1. Craig says:

    So now it’s not enough that the state makes interest on other people’s money, which they don’t know that the state has. Now, the state wants to make it easier to steal our property. Great.

    Republicans=not awesome.

  2. […] delighted to see them make this effort, and to see them set a target for revenue (unlike the House, which will be happy with whatever it comes up with) even if the level is too low. Recognizing that […]

  3. […] legislation must originate in the House, and House Ways and Means Chair Harvey Hilderbran has said no new tax bills will be forthcoming this session. So, barring anything unusual, we’re stuck with the system […]