Bad Bills

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Trimming the Grassroots

Senate Bill 690

Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio

Karen Hall’s knees still haven’t recovered from gathering signatures door-to-door for an amendment to Bryan’s city charter. “Democracy is a messy business,” she says, “but we like it.”

Hall recently came to the Capitol to lend her voice to a grassroots fight against Senate Bill 690, which would make messy local democratic efforts a lot more difficult. Filed by Sen. Jeff Wentworth, SB 690 would raise the required number of signatures for a charter amendment in Texas’ 346 home-rule cities from 5 percent of qualified voters to 10 percent.

Brian Rodgers of ChangeAustin.org, who spearheaded a 2008 charter-amendment campaign to prohibit city tax dollars from subsidizing large corporate developments, calls petition drives “our check and balance on our local government.” He knows from experience how tough it is to gather the 5 percent. To collect the 18,400 valid signatures needed, Austin petitioners had to collect 27,000 because not everyone who signs a petition turns out to be a qualified voter.

The Legislature lowered the requirement for charter amendments from 10 to 5 percent in 1973. The point was to make charter petitions feasible while keeping the threshold high enough to prevent people from calling frivolous elections. According to Wentworth, the 5 percent threshold “is far lower than any other threshold prescribed for petition-initiated elections in Texas.”

“That’s absolutely not true,” says Linda Curtis of Independent Texans, a nonpartisan group that encourages voter participation. She cites the 500 signatures it takes to get a Texan on the ballot to run for Congress and the 1 percent of Texas presidential voters an independent presidential candidate has to gather to be on the ballot. Even at around 60,000 signatures statewide, that pales in comparison to the approximately 100,000 signatures required for a charter amendment in Houston under SB 690. Wentworth’s bill would also remove the current 20,000-signature cap for big cities.

“I’ve been involved in amendment drives in Houston, and I think the [current] threshold is still pretty high,” says Sen. Dan Patrick, a Houston Republican. “It’s very difficult to get that many signatures. I have a real issue with taking that opportunity out of the hands of grassroots.”

Wentworth argues that a 10-percent threshold would “establish a more realistic barometer of public support.” But Rodgers points out that last year’s Austin amendment, after meeting the 5-percent threshold, ultimately won 48 percent support in November.

Wentworth says he worries that “some of these petitions are financed by maybe just one very wealthy individual and they can get that 5 percent by paying people.” But SB 690 could exacerbate that problem. With more Texas towns restricting petitioners to public walkways, a higher threshold might make it more likely that only the most generously funded campaigns would reach 10 percent of the voters.

One-Legged Stool

House Bill 4184/House Joint Resolution 133

Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center

Rep. Wayne Christian’s intent in House Bill 4184 is noble: provide adequate funding for public education. It’s his way of going about it that’s all wrong.

Passage of the bill and its accompanying constitutional amendment, House Joint Resolution 133, would spawn a voter referendum on abolishing all property taxes in Texas effective Jan. 1, 2014. Property taxes are levied locally to fund public education, police and fire services, road maintenance, hospitals. How’s it going to help to take their funding source away? By abolishing property taxes, Christian says his bill would make legislators come up with better ways of funding schools by the 2014 deadline.

“The state would never consider a tax bill-a real tax bill-until they were forced to,” Christian says.

True enough. And Texas schools are certainly in crisis. But abolishing property taxes, which make up 45 percent of total Texas tax revenue, would trigger serious economic volatility and make it impossible for communities to manage budgets and services. Texas already lacks the income tax that most states have-and Christian says that creating one is a no-go. “Because of the will of the citizens of Texas,” he says, “I think politically it’s not a possible scenario.”

What’s left? Without a property tax, the state would have to rely on the sales tax, says Dick Lavine, senior fiscal analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “You’d have to have a sales tax that is roughly two-and-a-half times as big-call it 16 percent. Plus, of course, with a high sales tax, people will be buying less. You’re talking about a 20 percent sales tax,” Lavine says. “It would shut down consumption.”

Christian’s bill also seems to violate a fundamental social conservative value: local control. Efforts to cap or abolish property taxes in other states have met significant opposition. Local entities argue that state control over property taxes erodes communities’ ability to determine what services are best-and levy taxes to pay for them.

Lavine says the “best practice” for states is a three-pronged approach to raising revenue: A sales tax, a property tax, and an income tax. Texas is one of seven states without an income tax. Knocking out the property tax would be taking Texas exceptionalism to the extreme, leaving us with, as Lavine puts it, a “one-legged stool.”