Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff made San Antonio environmentalists swallow their coffee hard last week when he told a business group he would like to transfer sales tax money that currently goes to protect the Edwards Aquifer and build creekside trails to VIA for expanded rapid transit service.
The decision would be made by voters, who get to renew the one-eighth-cent sales tax for aquifer protection and linear parks every five years. The issue is likely to be on the ballot in November 2020.
Memo to Wolff and San Antonio taxpayers: You’re not the only one eyeing that money.
A powerful state legislator is quietly mounting an effort to “steal” – his word, not mine – not just the one-eighth-cent sales tax from cities, but all the sales tax revenues cities and a few counties collect under state law.
In San Antonio alone, we’re talking about $626 million.
It’s an ambitious, even outrageous notion, but given the power of the person who is talking it up in private sessions, it should not be dismissed out of hand. That person is State Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock), who happens to be chairman of the Texas House’s Ways and Means Committee. That’s the committee that writes our tax laws.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Burrows was the legislator who joined Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen in the infamous secret meeting with right-wing activist Michael Quinn Sullivan. Burrows is the one who, after Bonnen left the room, gave Sullivan the names of 10 moderate Republicans whom the speaker was secretly asking Sullivan to use his deep-pocketed political action committee to oppose.
After completing that task, Burrows and Sullivan talked about what they want to accomplish in the 2021 legislative session. The agenda amounts to a continuation of the war on cities that last session saw a 3.5 percent cap put on local revenue growth without a public vote. The Legislature also prohibited cities from charging telecommunications companies for stringing wires and cables along city streets, a ban that will cost San Antonio $7.3 million this year.
High on Burrows and Bonnen’s list was reviving two bills that failed earlier this year. One would ban cities and counties from hiring outside lobbyists, thereby maiming their effectiveness in the Legislature. It was for voting against such a bill that put the 10 moderate Republican House members on the Bonnen hit list.
In addition, they talked about making it illegal for state and local governments to deduct union dues from the paychecks of government employees – with the exception of powerful police and fire unions. This is a traditional method for crippling unions by burdening them with collecting their own dues month after month. Bonnen made clear the intent: “Ninety-eight percent of union money goes to Democrats.”
But these measures pale in comparison to Burrows’ new initiative: to lower school property taxes by reassigning city sales taxes to pay school operating costs.
“I’ve pitched this to the governor, I’ve started pitching this to some of my colleagues,” Burrows told Sullivan, adding that “We hate cities and counties.”
Sullivan originally thought Burrows was talking about lowering school property taxes by creating another new tax, as the Legislature did with the despised state franchise tax in 2006. This is something else entirely. In Texas, local taxing jurisdictions can impose an additional sales tax of up to 2 percent in addition to the 6.5 percent state sales tax.
Burrows laid it out succinctly, if not entirely grammatically: “But, I mean, if you want to drive down property taxes significantly – as I said, I just want the local governments to have a worse session next session – by ending taxpayer-funded lobbying and stealing their two pennies, putting them toward the taxpayers.”
Sullivan was enthusiastic. “Yeah, I love it,” he said. “That’s a great idea.”
What’s not to like about stealing $9.5 billion a year from local governments? Well, for one thing, city taxpayers voted for the use of much of that money. In San Antonio, they voted to give $39 million to curtail development over sensitive Edwards Aquifer recharge areas and extend the city’s creekside pathways. They voted the same amount for the city’s pre-K program, about $156 million for VIA, and about $78 million for other mobility programs through the Advanced Transportation District.
And taking another $313 million out of the city’s general fund would cause considerable local pain, especially since the vast majority would have to come out of the one-third of the general fund that isn’t paying police officers and firefighters, whose union contracts are guaranteed.
Burrows admitted that accomplishing this grandest of larcenies would be a “tall lift.” It would be much more difficult than banning tax-paid lobbyists, and he was unable to pass that measure through the House even after the Senate did.
Another problem for Burrows is that Bonnen won’t be House Speaker next session. He has announced he is not running for re-election to his seat in the wake of the scandal. Burrows resigned as chairman of the House Republican Caucus and may well not be reappointed to his powerful Ways and Means chairmanship.
It’s likely that House members from the cities will be looking to elect a Speaker who doesn’t share the antipathy toward cities that Bonnen expressed in his secretly taped meeting with Sullivan: “In this office and in the conference room on that end, any mayor or county judge that was dumb ass enough to come meet with me, I told them with great clarity, my goal is for this to be the worst session in the history of the Legislature for cities and counties.”
To which Burrows, perhaps with his theft from the cities in mind, responded: “I hope the next session’s even worse.”
Memo to Burrows: The largest urban counties – the homes of Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth – alone hold 42 percent of the state’s registered voters. And their portion is growing.