When the Texas Legislature’s safest vote is no vote at all

By Ross Ramsey

Sometimes, the best votes for legislators are the ones that never take place. This year’s top candidate has to be the leadership’s proposed tax swap — higher sales taxes in return for lower property taxes — that never surfaced for debate in the House or in the Senate.

Maybe it made a couple of people in the Texas House mad — go back and watch the exchange between Reps. Dan Huberty, the Houston Republican who authored that legislation, and Dustin Burrows, the Lubbock Republican who guided it through committee and to the floor — but the senators who effectively killed the ill-fated swap did everyone else a favor.

Nobody had to vote to raise a tax. In the Texas Legislature, that’s a win.

Democrats opposed the sales tax as a regressive levy that would hurt their constituents and pointed out that the renters who dominate many of their districts wouldn’t see any savings from a property tax cut. Reinforcement for that position arrived from the Legislative Budget Board, which prepared a required “tax/fee equity note” that showed who would benefit from a swap. Surprise! It would benefit Texans with incomes over $99,619; everyone below that would pay more taxes.

And for all of the rhetorical exertion that went into this, neither the winners nor the losers would have seen significant benefits. It would operate like a swap is supposed to operate, changing the pocket from which the taxes are collected more than changing the amount being extracted.

The Democrats were also observing one of the oldest axioms in politics: Never interrupt an opponent who’s in the middle of a mistake. In addition to finding no firm policy reasons to support the swap, Democrats had no political motivation to help the Republican leaders who proposed it.

Conservative Republicans who didn’t want to raise the sales (or any other) tax got off the hook when the Senate stripped big property tax cuts out of its version of the public education and school finance bill. That eliminated the need for the swap, brought the price of the Senate bill into line with the House version, and prompted the House to pull down the tax bill without a vote the next day.

Only the members of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Education Committee ended up taking anything like a risky tax vote, and those procedural moves won’t likely be remembered.

Legislators had reason to be nervous about this.

One-fifth of the House’s 150 districts should be competitive or highly competitive next year, if the 2016 and 2018 election results are your guide. Challengers there are looking for weaknesses, and incumbents are looking in their rearview mirrors to see if anyone’s gaining on them. Tax bills are important in times like those.

In the Senate, most of the Republicans on the 2020 ballot represent districts that aren’t very competitive in general elections. Sen. Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, is an exception; he won a special election in a district where Democrats typically win most of the vote and can expect a tough reelection race. For his Republican colleagues, the exposure to competition is greater in the GOP primaries, where taxes have always been an important issue.

A vote on a tax swap would have been potentially dangerous to all of those folks. A nonvote, for them, is one less thing to worry about.

That leaves the leaders who hyped the deal in the first place: Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen.

They may win, too. The priorities they announced at the beginning of the legislative session — school finance, teacher pay, property tax reforms — are all still in motion, on their way to the House-Senate conference committees named to iron out differences in their versions of those bills. Success with those issues could easily overshadow the tax pratfall, assuming they get success in the next couple of weeks.

They won’t get deep cuts in school property taxes that they and their voters have railed about for years, but they also won’t have to answer for installing what would have been one of the highest sales taxes in the country.

If they’re lucky, they probably won’t have to talk about it much at all. That would count as a win.

This article originally appeared at The Texas Tribune. 

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