Burning the Tax Ships

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At Tuesday’s Senate Finance Subcommittee hearing on education funding, Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, offered a revolutionary suggestion: a statewide property tax to make school funding a more logical affair.

The proposal was shocking, not because of the policy’s merits, but because it was one of the first times we’ve heard Republican lawmakers talk about taxing without being wholly negative. (The other prime example came on the very first day of the session, when Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, suggested the business franchise tax needed reform.) There hasn’t been much nuance this session when it comes to taxation—from Gov. Rick Perry on down, the GOP emphasis has largely rotated the easy message of “no new taxes.” 

Duncan’s suggestion seems reasonable enough. Currently, local districts basically determine their own property tax rates to a certain extent, and it’s one of the many reasons that certain school districts receive better funding than others. Of course, if the lawmakers consider a statewide property tax, they could also consider undoing the cuts they made in 2006 and make property taxes a little higher. (Not surprisingly, Duncan didn’t suggest that.)

But for all its logic, Duncan’s proposal is pretty unlikely to gain traction. Not because it’s bad policy, but because so many lawmakers just got re-elected on a wave of anti-government, anti-tax enthusiasm. That wave was also called the Tea Party movement. Tea Partiers aren’t likely to support Duncan’s proposal, which would require a constitutional amendment and ultimately decrease “local control,” another favorite conservative issue.

Ever since the state Comptroller’s office revealed that the state would be $27 billion short if lawmakers wanted to maintain current services, there’s been a looming question. Is there a point at which Tea Party politicians would be willing to concede some of their hard-line rhetoric about against government spending and taxation? Would there be a time when folks could acknowledge that government spending wasn’t always so bad?

Duncan’s proposal—and the unlikeliness that it could succeed—reminded me of a conversation a had a couple weeks ago wtih Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola. We talked and sipped soda in the Capitol cafeteria, surrounded by lobbyists and activists. (If you’ve never been to the cafeteria, it’s an odd meeting of the minds, where pretense of party sometimes drops as liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats share lunch. Sometimes reporters even get invited.)

When I asked Hughes about the tensions lawmakers face—cutting spending while trying to preserve their districts’ programs—he readily agreed to the difficulties. 

“Bringing home the bacon is one thing,” he said, “but does that mean my community college? Does that mean my public school? These are the hard questions that we’re going to have to answer.”

Okay. But now that lawmakers are facing serious cuts to their own colleges and schools, is there any chance they will retreat on some of their anti-tax platforms? Consider raising revenue or restructuring taxes to save some of the programs on the chopping block? “It’s easy to talk about cuts when you’re not talking about people,” I said, “but there are people with these cuts? Right?”

“I think that decision’s been made,” Hughes said. Then he borrowed a line Sean Connery’s character used in The Hunt for Red October. (I confess, my heart melted a little bit. Floor Play devotees will know that I can’t resist a good pop culture reference.)

“When Cortez came to the new world,” Hughes began, “he burned his ships so that his men wouldn’t be tempted to turn back. There was no option, there was no place else to go. 

“If you look at the campaigns that we ran, that the vast majority of the members of the House and I think the Senate ran this last session, we all said we’re going to balance the budget without raising taxes. We’ve all said that.

“I don’t think there’s any turning back at that point.”

Hughes expressed what I think most Republicans in the Lege are feeling right now. There’s no way to change course and start supporting tax hikes. But that means Draconian budgets like the proposals we’re currently seeing—slashing community mental health care, Medicaid provider rates and the like. Not to mention $9.8 billion cuts to public education.

Of course, lawmakers are only postponing the tough decisions. If these cuts go through, not long from now we’ll hear clamoring to increase funding. But unless lawmakers can start talking about taxing options, like statewide property taxes or tax increases, we’re facing a future where cuts will be our only option going forward.

And even Sean Connery might be concerned about that.