Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

franchise tax

We’re going to vote on making an income tax double secret illegal

It’s definitely time for sine die.

Sen. Pat Fallon

Texas voters will decide in November if they want to bar the imposition of an income tax, following approval of the constitutional amendment by the state Senate on Monday.

The Texas House had approved House Joint Resolution 38, which prohibits the imposition of an individual income tax, earlier this month.

The seemingly anodyne proposal ran into pushback Monday from some Senate Democrats who suggested the bill could cut business taxes, a major source of state money.

There appears to be no threat of an income tax currently — no such bill appears to have been filed, let alone have reached the floor of either chamber, where it would be political kryptonite. And a 1993 constitutional amendment already holds that Texas can adopt a state income tax only if voters approve and that the money would go for the “support of education.”

But Senate Democrats on Monday sparred with Republicans over a seemingly arcane bit of language that could carry big budget implications.

The resolution says that the Legislature may not impose a net income tax on “individuals.”

Democrats, pointing to an analysis by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board, said that could be interpreted by courts to apply to businesses, especially because the measure’s language uses that term rather than “natural persons,” which is often used in statutes.

The business levy, long a target of Republicans eager to shave taxes, brings in about $8 billion per biennium, helping to fund public schools.

“The term ‘individuals’ is not defined and could be interpreted to include entities that are currently subject to the state’s franchise tax,” the Legislative Budget Board analysis reads. “To the extent the joint resolution might exempt some entities from the franchise tax, there could be a loss to state revenue.”

[…]

Earlier during the debate, [author Sen. Pat] Fallon said the constitutional amendment would firm up the state’s opposition to income tax.

“I’m always in fear of an income tax,” he said. “Every day I wake up, the thought of Texas having an income tax makes me shudder. Physically shudder, not metaphorically.”

Seriously? Mere words cannot adequately express my reaction to Sen. Fallon’s delicate sensibilities, so mark me down as being somewhere between here and here. I do hope you sleep better tonight, Senator, and if not I recommend warm milk and a bedtime story, preferably one with a happy ending. As for my reaction, here it is:

“Why would pesky LBB fiscal facts be any help when discussing a major source of state revenue for schools?” Eva DeLuna Castro, a budget analyst with the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, wrote on Twitter. “I mean, it’s not as if major business conglomerates have highly paid tax lawyers waiting in the wings to explain why they are ‘individuals’ too.”

What could possibly go wrong? The Trib and the DMN have more.

It’s bill-filing season

Here are some highlights from Day One:

  • House Bill 49, by Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, would get rid of daylight saving time in Texas. Some lawmakers have tried to do this in past sessions.
  • House Bill 63, by Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, would make it a civil offense — not a crime — to be caught with less than one ounce of marijuana. Moody’s bill was one of several filed Monday aiming to loosen marijuana laws in Texas.
  • House Bill 84, also by Moody, would repeal the section of the Texas penal code that lists “homosexual conduct” as a crime. The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that the section is unenforceable, but it remains on the books.
  • House Bill 222, by Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, would prohibit Texas cities from adopting or enforcing ordinances that would require employers to offer their employees paid sick leave. San Antonio and Austin have passed paid sick leave ordinances this year. Soon after Austin passed its ordinance, state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, announced that he would file legislation banning the ordinances, but Workman was defeated in Tuesday’s election.
  • House Joint Resolution 24, by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, would propose a constitutional amendment requiring the state to fund at least half of the cost of funding public schools. If the amendment were approved by voters, local property tax collections would not apply to the state’s share.
  • Senate Bill 66, by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would reduce and eventually eliminate the state’s franchise tax.

My reaction, in order: Oppose, favor, favor, oppose, favor, neutral. It makes me happy that the pro-sick employees faction had to find a new lackey after their original sponsor got tossed. I’ll be following this stuff as usual as we morph into the legislative season.

House approves bill to kill margins tax

Dumb.

The Texas House on Thursday approved a proposal that would phase out an unpopular business tax that provides funding for public schools.

The proposal by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, would not reduce the state’s franchise tax during the current penny-pinching legislative session, but it would do so in future years. Under Bonnen’s bill, economic growth would trigger reductions in the tax, which currently brings in about $8 billion every two-year budget cycle, until it ultimately disappears.

About $1.8 billion in franchise tax revenue in the current two-year budget cycle goes to the Property Tax Relief Fund, which pays for public schools. Democrats, arguing that the tax cut would cause lawmakers in later years to underfund crucial public programs, railed against the proposal for nearly two hours. They offered a series of amendments that would have lessened the extent of the tax cut or redirected funds for college tuition, pre-kindergarten and other priorities, but all were defeated.

The final vote took place late Thursday evening at the end of a long day on the House floor, which followed a marathon debate Wednesday over “sanctuary” jurisdictions that lasted until roughly 3 a.m. When Bonnen’s proposal finally hit the floor, few Republicans offered any remarks in response to Democrats’ outrage; most lawmakers in the chamber appeared to be paying little attention.

[…]

Businesses dislike the franchise tax, often called a “margin tax,” because they say it’s overly complicated and can punish them in less-prosperous years. Because it’s based on a business’s gross receipts, a business can still be required to pay the tax even in years it takes a loss. Many call the tax, which was passed as a way to reform the state’s school finance system, an unnecessary burden, and high-profile Republicans including Gov. Greg Abbott have sought its demise.

Lawmakers in 2015 cut the tax rate by 25 percent, which gave them $2.6 billion less revenue to help craft a budget this year. Proponents of the tax’s elimination argue it would stimulate the state’s economy and create jobs.

In the short term, it’s difficult to say just how much revenue is at stake in Bonnen’s proposal because the tax is highly dependent on economic conditions. A fiscal note written by the state’s Legislative Budget Board estimated it could cut public school funds by up to $3.5 billion in the 2020-2021 biennium.

I mean, look, I know the margins tax was a poorly conceived kludge that everyone hates (or at least claims to) and which has been a top GOP whipping boy for a couple of sessions, but please do keep two things in mind. One, this tax, which replaced the also-hated and seldom-paid franchise tax, was created in 2006 to help fill the revenue void left by the Supreme Court school finance decision in 2005 that led to a mandated across-the-board property tax cut. It was never going to fully fill that void, and indeed its poor design and regular underperformance has been a problem, but it at least made up for some of the funding for schools that disappeared when the previous system was declared to have been an unconstitutional statewide property tax. Something is going to need to replace the revenue lost to this tax being (eventually) eliminated, and all we have right now is wishful thinking about economic growth, a continued reliance on local property taxes, and a handful of magic beans. And two, it’s probably not a coincidence that the amount of revenue lost in this biennium to the previous one’s margins tax cut is almost precisely the amount the House and Senate are arguing about in order to make this session’s budget “balance”. Cause and effect, y’all. You should have one of your interns Google it.

Senate passes its budget

It’s the one bill that has to pass.

The Texas Senate unanimously approved a two-year budget on Tuesday that would shift nearly $2 billion in public education costs from the state to local taxpayers.

The Senate’s $218 billion document now goes to budget writers in the House for debate.

“This is a lean budget, but it’s also a smart budget,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, the 2018-19 Senate budget’s lead author. “It responsibly meets the needs of our state.”

The Senate’s proposal would spend $106.3 billion in state revenue, which is a significant bump from the $103.6 billion budget Nelson originally rolled out in January. That puts the Senate’s total spending level much closer to the House’s than they were when the proposals were originally published.

Still, there are major differences in funding priorities and methods of finance that the two chambers will need to reconcile before the Legislature adjourns in May, setting the stage for some of the biggest points of contention this year.

Nelson touted her budget’s focus on education. The Senate proposal actually strips about $1.8 billion in state funds for education but uses local property taxes and other revenue to make up the difference. In total, Nelson said, her proposal would boost public school funding by $4.6 billion compared to the prior budget, including a $2.6 billion provision to cover student enrollment growth.

“Under our formula, the local share of education funding fills up the bucket first, as local property tax collections go up, the state share goes down,” Nelson said. “But in the aggregate, funding for education is going up every year.”

At the same time, the Senate is advancing controversial tax cut proposals that critics say would make it more difficult for the state and local governments to pay for schools. Last week, the upper chamber passed Senate Bill 2, which seeks to curb the growth in property taxes, and Senate Bill 17, which would cut the franchise tax paid by businesses in future years.

Emphasis mine. Note the on-the-nose Trib headline, “Texas Senate approves its budget, shifting school costs to local taxpayers”. Whatever else happens this session, I feel like at least the message that it’s the Legislature that is the main driver of property tax discontent has gotten out. Whether it’s gotten through is another matter, but at least it’s out there. I can’t recall that ever being the case before. The Chron has more on the Senate budget.

Meanwhile, over in the House:

The House Committee on Appropriations unanimously approved a two-year, $218.2 billion budget as a substitute for the Senate’s leaner proposal, putting the chambers on a collision course in the last two months of the session.

HB 1 now heads to the full House for a vote with contrasts to the $217.7 Senate proposal, which the upper chamber approved earlier this week.

House appropriators want to spend $2.5 billion from the Rainy Day Fund in their budget, leaving a $9.4 billion balance. That decision has touched off a public fight between House and Senate budget writers about whether they should dip into the state’s savings account.

On Wednesday, Chairman John Zerwas, a Republican from Katy, took a swipe at the Senate, which signed off on a maneuver that would delay until 2020 the transfer of $2.5 billion for transportation funding that voters approved in 2015.

“This budget does not rely on budget gimmickry that puts the state’s investment in transportation at risk,” he said. “The budget balances by cutting spending, prioritizing critical items and using a modest amount of (the Rainy Day Fund), for the exact purpose for which it is created.”

See here and here for some background on that. The conference committee for this one is going to be very interesting. The Trib has more.

Lawsuits and low oil prices

Both are threatening the next Texas budget.

BagOfMoney

Last week, lawyers for the state of Texas got the latest in a string of bad legal news.

A lawsuit challenging the state’s foster care system as inhumane appeared to gain steam when an appeals court rejected the state’s request to stop the appointment of two “special masters” to recommend reforms.

The overhauls that have been discussed so far would be pricey to implement — as much as $100 million per year, according to rough estimates from the state comptroller’s office. But they actually are on the lower end of all the extraordinary legal expenses the state is facing at a time when stubbornly low oil prices are simultaneously threatening to blunt its coffers.

Three other lawsuits against the state — two of them pending before the Texas Supreme Court, with rulings expected soon — could cost the state billions if it ends up on the losing side. Experts say the state may have the cash to cover one of them in a single budget cycle, but probably not any more than that — especially if low oil prices persist, dampening the state’s stream of tax revenue. That could mean budget cuts when lawmakers meet for the 2017 session, at least if the Republican-dominated Legislature remains steadfast in its refusal to tap the state’s nearly $10 billion Rainy Day Fund.

Two of those three lawsuits, both tax cases, could cost the state a combined $10.4 billion in tax refunds and up to $2 billion in collections per year beyond that, according to the comptroller’s office, which is closely monitoring them.

Potential cost estimates do not exist for the last case — a high-profile challenge to the state’s public education funding system — but past school finance rulings have cost the state billions.

Such sums would handily eclipse the state’s $4.2 billion projected surplus, which could itself dwindle if oil prices remain low and further blunt tax collections. (Comptroller Glenn Hegar has already lowered projections once.)

“Any of those by themselves are a huge hit,” said Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. “But if you start losing two or three of those issues then, yeah, it’s much more questionable that the state’s general revenue reserves are sufficient to cover that.”

See here and here for some background. There’s not much that can be done about the price of oil, though after years of living it up, and of politicians claiming credit for all that robustness, I doubt there’s much sympathy out there for us. The rest are the result of policy and/or legislative decisions, some of which may well bite us in the bottom line. I’m rooting for the Supreme Court to stick it hard to the Lege on school finance, but the other cases I’d rather see the state win. As much political hay as there is to be made in a chaotic situation, there’s nothing good from a public policy perspective on those cases, and I have little faith the Lege would do a good job cleaning up the mess. But on school finance, all bets ought to be off. We’ll see how it goes.

We have a messed up tax system in this state

The latest exhibit:

BagOfMoney

The volatile oil and gas industry already has prompted Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar to reduce his state revenue estimate, but that may not be the last of the bad budget news.

A court decision potentially could cost Texas around $1.1 billion a year in franchise tax revenue, plus require four years’ worth of refunds totaling another $6 billion, according to the comptroller’s office.

“It could be enormous. Enormous,” Hegar said in an interview about the possible effect of the lawsuit brought by American Multi-Cinema, which so far has won its court battle for a bigger deduction from its franchise tax payments.

If the 3rd Court of Appeals ruling in the case stands, the two-year refund due AMC is calculated at nearly $1.2 million.

But Hegar is predicting a potentially much bigger hit for the state based on the assumption that a wide range of businesses would be quick to take advantage of the deduction awarded Missouri-based AMC. The state is asking the court for a rehearing.

The AMC lawsuit centers on the franchise-tax deduction for “cost of goods sold,” which includes such things as the raw material used to make an item.

The 3rd Court of Appeals ruled in the lawsuit in April that exhibiting a movie amounts to a “good” because it’s “perceptible to the senses,” fitting the definition of tangible personal property. Therefore, the court said, AMC can include its auditorium expenses as production costs when figuring its franchise-tax deduction.

“As a practical matter, the court’s holding could potentially treat a business exhibiting a movie as producing TPP (tangible personal property) in much the same way that a carpenter produces a chair or desk” and allow many other service providers to claim deductions, Hegar wrote to state leaders in June.

“It could be lawyers, accountants, people that mow yards. It’s just unbelievable how broad it was,” he said. It opens the door to deductions for their computers or other equipment. “You can even argue that now when somebody comes and mows your yard, you sit in the back yard and you smell that grass, and it’s real pretty. It’s perception to your senses.

“The list just doesn’t stop,” Hegar said. “It would kind of be like the kids’ Christmas list in a Santa Claus movie. It’s a real long list. It just keeps on rolling out the door.”

In a similar fashion, this ruling could also affect the state sales tax, and that could wind up offsetting some of the franchise tax loss. Or maybe not – estimates of the possible total cost of this ruling are in the $6 billion per year range. That’s getting into some real money, at a time when the state could wind up also being on the hook for a lot more money to public education. Like the public ed issue, this will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the Lege, which could clarify what the franchise tax covers or – since abolishing the franchise tax is the current fetish – replace it with something else. I wouldn’t hold out much hope.