Attacks on a state income tax are popular but short-sighted, especially for education

Hostility toward a state income tax has always been deep in Texas, which is why Texas voters in 1993 overwhelmingly approved an amendment to the state constitution forbidding the Legislature from ever enacting a tax on personal income without the approval of Texas voters in a statewide election.

So far, we haven’t come close to having such an election.

Most school teachers and other school employees probably dislike the idea of a state income tax as much as anyone else. And I am not proposing one, at least not now, even though an income tax could reduce most teachers’ share of the state and local tax load, while forcing wealthy and super-wealthy Texans to pay more.

The average Texas teacher pays anywhere from 7 to 9 percent of his or her annual income in state and local taxes, based on household income-level calculations by the state comptroller’s office and the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Many school bus drivers and cafeteria workers pay 17 percent or more, while the average Texas millionaire pays 4 percent or less. That’s because the sales and property taxes that are the foundation of the Texas tax structure are more regressive than an income tax would be.

Moreover, an income tax could provide a significant increase in funding for public education while reducing school property taxes, and, sooner rather than later, the Legislature is going to have to find more state funding for public schools or force cuts in programs. This year’s additional funding was just a down payment on what needs to come as enrollment continues to grow.

The 1993 amendment, championed by the late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, dedicates two-thirds of the revenue from any future income tax to reducing school property taxes and the remaining one-third to education.

Now, the current state leadership and legislative majority want to repeal the 1993 amendment. To that end, they have placed Proposition 4 on the November constitutional amendments ballot. It is unnecessary and one of the more short-sighted measures to emerge from the recent legislative session.

At present, only a legislative majority would be required to submit the income-tax issue to voters if the need for a new revenue source were to arise. Proposition 4, if adopted, would wipe out the 1993 amendment and its provisions for property tax relief and additional education funding. It also would make it much more difficult for future Legislatures to enact a personal income tax for any reason – education, transportation, health care or whatever future public need may arise.

Under Proposition 4, two-thirds of the House and the Senate would have to approve an income tax before the question could be submitted to voters. That means, even in a budgetary crisis, a minority of monied or ideological interests could exert enough political pressure on a minority of lawmakers to deprive voters of the opportunity to weigh in on a potential solution – and a fairer tax structure.

Current state leaders think it is good politics to bury the idea of a state income tax, and many voters will applaud them now. But eventually, if Proposition 4 passes, their successors will be cursing their short-sightedness. So will many educators and parents of school children.

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