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We have a messed up tax system in this state, part deux

Sooner or later, it’s going to collapse under its own weight.

BagOfMoney

The state’s highest civil court last week agreed to hear a case hinging on whether metal pipes, tubing and other equipment used in oil and gas production should be exempt from sales taxes. While the issue is arcane, the impact to the state could be significant.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar is sounding the alarm that a ruling favoring the industry could force the state to issue tax refunds of as much as $4.4 billion — enough to wipe out the state’s projected budget surplus.

“This is very serious, real money,” said Hegar, the state’s chief financial officer, this week in an interview.

Midland-based Southwest Royalties, a subsidiary of Clayton Williams Energy, sued the state in 2009 — just before a drilling boom transformed the U.S. energy landscape — after Susan Combs, Hegar’s predecessor, rejected a claim for refunds on purchases dating back to 1997. Over the years, the case has wound its way through the court system.

Now, the state’s Supreme Court justices are set to weigh the company’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling amid concerns that a prolonged drilling slowdown might hurt Texas’ bottom line.

It is one of two ongoing tax cases — the other filed by the parent company of AMC movie theaters — that budget watchers fear will cost Texas millions in past and future tax revenue if the final outcomes don’t go their way. Hegar called the pair of cases “two of the biggest potentially that could impact what appropriators do in the next legislative session,” though he expressed confidence that the state would prevail in both.

The oral arguments in the drilling case, set for March 8, are likely to enthrall accountants and chemistry teachers alike. The justices will need to parse the language of a sales tax exemption for goods and services used in the “actual manufacturing, processing, or fabrication of tangible personal property,” and debate how that description relates to the mechanics of petroleum extraction.

The case hinges on whether certain extraction equipment — like casing, pipes, tubing and pumps — fits the definition cited in the exemption.

See here for the background on the other case. Honestly, it’s all angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin stuff, and no one who isn’t a specialist will understand the ruling when it gets handed down. Which frees me up to think about the political angle, and what I think is this: With the state economy potentially in a multi-year slump, a budget that may fall into deficit again regardless of this case or the school finance case, and a property tax system that privileges the wealthy and powerful at everyone else’s expense, the time may be ripe for a candidate to grab the Mary Beth Rogers playbook and make a case for giving our state government a complete overhaul. The case for change, if things don’t get better, will be compelling. The counter, as always, will be to blame the federal government, and to be sure that will exert a strong allure on many. But after 15 years of all-Republican control, and multiple cycles of Republican candidates promising to fix the budget and build the economy, maybe there will be room for people to consider an alternative. Just something to think about.

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