The devil, as always, is in the details of a state budget that totals $200 billion in the current two-year fiscal period, including state and federal funds that are largely spoken for before lawmakers convene. Education and health and human services alone take up nearly three-quarters of the total.Texas has plenty of revenue, in theory, but it also has plenty of needs that can easily sop up the $3.4 billion "extra" allowed for under the new spending cap. With a likely adverse school-finance ruling looming, billions in new state spending are practically if not formally spoken for. So how could the state reduce property taxes for the average Texan?
“I fully expect there to be some tax relief. The question is, what’s the nature of it?” said Rep. John Otto, a Dayton Republican who serves on the House Appropriations Committee.
Here's an idea: Reduce local jail costs - which have been a big driver of tax increases in many Texas counties - by reducing penalty categories for low-level marijuana possession (currently a Class B misdemeanor for possession of two ounces or less) and driving with an invalid license (DWLI, currently a Class B misdemeanor on the second offense). Make those two offenses a Class C or even a civil violation and local governments, especially counties, would save money a) by writing tickets instead of jailing people, b) from the fact that attorneys aren't appointed for the indigent in Class C cases, and c) by keeping more officers, both sheriffs deputies and municipal PDs, out on patrol instead of at the jail arresting pot smokers and drivers who couldn't pay the Driver Responsibility surcharge.
Texas already started down this road, reducing first offense DWLI from a Class B to a Class C in 2007 after the Driver Responsibility surcharge flooded county courts with unlicensed drivers in the first years after its passage. That same year, the Lege passed and Gov. Perry signed legislation to allow local police departments to write tickets instead of make arrests for DWLI, marijuana possession, and several other petty Class B offenses. Only a few agencies took the Lege up on that optional authority, though, and county jails and court dockets remain stuffed with these low-level, non-violent offenders. So reducing penalties for those two Class Bs is a logical next step, as the House County Affairs discussed during an interim committee hearing on the topic earlier this year.
Unlike the feds, Texas' budget must balance. Any claim to cut taxes will prove a mare's nest without a correspondent reduction in spending in a long-term sustainable way. That's why property-tax relief through the school districts can't be certain in light of the surely soon-to-be-coming court verdict on school finance. The state has little wiggle room to spend less on healthcare. And pols have promised to spend more, not less, on transportation and border security. After baseline reductions in 2003 and 2011, there's not a lot of fat left to cut, particularly that would impact property taxes.
By changing state policies to reduce county jail costs, the 84th Legislature could deliver real, not just temporary or superficial, local property-tax relief, cutting costs on a big-ticket item that affects every Texas county. I can't think of a quicker, more certain way the Lege could reduce upward pressure on local property taxes given the practical constraints imposed by law and politics on the state budget.