The Texas economy has continued to recover since the steep downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns by state and local governments in March. The partial reopening of most non-essential businesses has been a key part of that recovery, but the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations has contributed to increased capacity restrictions that have slowed economic activity.
More on the data and how Texans can get back to work as quickly and safely as possible
Today, the Texas Workforce Commission released the state jobs report for Dec. 2020 in which the Texas unemployment rate fell from 8.1% in Nov. 2020 to 7.2%.
“Today’s jobs report for Texas shows some good news for workers and employers in December as employment increased for the eighth straight month and as the unemployment rate dropped to 7.2%,” said TPPF’s Chief Economist Vance Ginn, Ph.D. “While these gains are welcome, Texas’ labor market remains much weaker than a year ago when there were 384,700 more people employed in the private sector and the unemployment rate was 3.5%. Despite the potential policy challenges for the state’s recovery imposed by the Biden administration, the Texas Legislature looks poised to help with the recovery in their latest budget proposals as soon as the economy opens.”
Today, the Texas House and Senate introduced their versions of the 2022-23 budget.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Chief Economist Vance Ginn, Ph.D. offered the following statement:
“At a time when many Texas families and employers are struggling financially across the state, we are glad to see the Texas Legislature come together to introduce a state budget that protects taxpayers. By maintaining last session’s property tax relief and ensuring the savings does not go to extra spending, the total 2022-23 budget comes in well below the Foundation’s Conservative Texas Budget. It controls spending growth, keeps property taxes lower, doesn’t raise other taxes or tap into the rainy day fund. The state budget is a responsible approach that puts Texans in a better position to recover their lives and livelihoods as soon as the economy is fully open.”
To read more about TPPF’s 2022-23 Conservative Texas Budget, please visit:
Today, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar released the Biennial Revenue Estimate (BRE) which tells the Legislature the amount of taxpayer dollars available to fund various programs like public safety, education, and health care during the upcoming session which begins Jan. 12.
“Given the COVID-19 pandemic and business shutdowns by state and local governments, the Comptroller’s budget forecast, while better than anticipated, has a great deal of uncertainty,” said Texas Public Policy Foundation Chief Economist Vance Ginn, Ph.D. “While the BRE is well above expectations and the 2020-21 budget will likely end balanced, the Legislature should continue to find savings. At a time when many families are struggling, it is essential that the Legislature maintain conservative fiscal policies, so Texans have the best opportunity to flourish. This can be done by assuring that the budget increases by no more than the maximum threshold of the Conservative Texas Budget, reducing spending where appropriate, cutting taxes, and rolling back regulations as we outlined in the Foundation’s Responsible Recovery Agenda.”
The Texas economy continues recovering since the steep downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and business shutdowns by state and local governments in spring 2020. Tailwinds could be strong in 2021 if the government removes restrictions and follows responsible fiscal policy so people are free to live and earn money.
Are your kids getting the education they need—either in person, or remotely? It might depend on where you live; it should instead be up to you.
Schools shut down last spring. Some reopened in the fall, some did not. Others, like those in New York City, are closing again. Some schools are trying to mix in-person and virtual instruction.
This confusion should be alleviated as much as possible by allowing parents to decide which schooling is best for their kids.
Based on the evidence, it seems that schools can safely keep in-person instruction as they aren’t super-spreaders, and that many students benefit from this kind of instruction. A recent national poll found that more than 50% of parents are comfortable with returning to school. The same poll found that half of parents with a choice selected remote education for their children.
Ultimately, decisions about schooling should happen closest to students, starting with their parents. The COVID-19 shutdowns have shown us the need for school choice—letting parents decide what schooling works best for their children.
Families with means already have more choices, of course. Some have chosen to put their kids in private schools or home school. But other families can’t afford this and must try to make their public school work—while also trying to make ends meet.
For example, virtual instruction usually requires an adult’s care to ensure that a child is able to access instruction and learn. This puts extra pressure on working families—they might have to miss work or pay someone else for childcare.
We know that normal school breaks can lead to widened educational disparities. Continued school shutdowns could also lead to widening racial wealth disparities in America. A McKinsey study reported that the educational level of the average Black or Hispanic student is two years behind the average white student, based on many factors—including place of residence and wealth disparity.
That study also indicates that if in-person instruction doesn’t occur until January 2021 and students receive remote instruction at reduced learning rates (or even no instruction at all), “white students would earn $1,348 a year less (1.6% reduction) over a 40-year working life, [but] the figure is $2,186 a year (3.3% reduction) for Black students and $1,809 (3.0% reduction) for Hispanic ones.”
Continuity in students’ educational experiences are also at the forefront of parents’ concerns.
A recent survey of 600 full-time, public school teachers across the nation showed that 67% of teachers agreed that completion rates of assignments were worse during distance learning than in-person instruction.
The concern is especially high with low-income earners. The Texas Education Agency, for instance, reported a 55.6% drop this spring in progress for online math coursework for low-income families.
Still, for many families, the threat from COVID-19 is more concerning than the potential drawbacks of remote instruction, particularly for students or family members who are immunocompromised. And there are at least some families who have thrived in a remote education setting.
In the end, parents know their situations and concerns best. The choice should be theirs. In-person schooling, remote learning, or some other model should be their call.
The burden shouldn’t lie on parents to be flexible (and accepting of whatever school officials tell them they’ll receive); it’s the school districts that must be flexible—and accountable.
Child development doesn’t stop for COVID-19, or any other disruption. We owe American families the flexibility they need to keep their kids on track. And that should start with more choices for parents rather than top-down mandates by governments.
The Texas economy has continued to recover since the steep downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdowns by state and local governments in March. The partial reopening of most non-essential businesses has been a key part of that recovery, but the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations has contributed to increased capacity restrictions that have slowed economic activity.
Today, the Texas Public Policy Foundation released five papers that together form a responsible strategy for the state’s immediate and long-term economic growth.
“These five approaches make for good economic policy anytime,” said TPPF Chief Economist Vance Ginn, Ph.D. “But they are especially important as the state recovers from government-imposed shutdowns. Together, these strategies will help return Texas to the prosperity we saw before COVID-19 and help get us there fast.”
The Five-Step Strategy is:
“During the shutdown, the state suspended some rules and regulations, proving they weren’t essential for health and safety in the first place,” said Rod Bordelon, TPPF’s Policy Director for the Remember the Taxpayer Campaign. “Instead of waiting for the crisis to end to re-evaluate these regulations, we should repeal them now and review others in an ongoing basis so that Texans aren’t held back by unnecessary restrictions.”
The Responsible Recovery Agenda also stresses that budget writers should avoid seeking additional state revenue through increased fees and taxes.
“Raising taxes is a costly endeavor — even more so in a recession because it distorts behavior at a time when the economy is weak, delaying recovery and leading to even greater economic stress,” said Benjamin Priday, Ph.D., Economist at TPPF. “Legislators should close budget gaps first by strategically employing the Rainy Day Fund and by trying to find ways to reduce spending.
The Responsible Recovery Agenda is a comprehensive approach to addressing the budget challenges Texas faces in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns while also preserving the success of the Texas Model, which has strengthened the state’s economy.
For a historical look at the budget and other ways to improve the budget process, the Foundation also released The Real Texas Budget report.
Texas’s Economic Stabilization Fund (or “rainy day fund”) is a valuable tool for covering unexpected shortfalls in tax receipts, like those during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it should be used sparingly, and budget reductions should be prioritized instead.
The COVID-19-induced recession in Texas has strained the ability of many Texans to pay taxes to fund the state’s budget. The Legislature should consider prioritizing budget reductions to cover any potential budget shortfall.
COVID-19 continues to take a toll in the U.S., with more than 13 million cases and over 260,000 deaths. The rise in cases has led to interventions by state governments.
Given that the health threat is real, we should learn from what has worked —and what has not. That means we must work hard on a vaccine, protect the vulnerable, and let most people live their lives.
Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington have closed most businesses. New Mexico has issued a shelter-in-place order. Other states have started mandating masks. Some Texans are pushing for more interventions even as we’ve had a statewide mask mandate since July 2.
While these interventions are well-intended, blanket and indefinite policies simply aren’t warranted. Such policies have already cost millions of jobs.
During the lockdown that started in March, many Texans’ livelihoods suffered a devastating blow. The state’s economy contracted by a record 29% on an annual basis in the second quarter of 2020. This contributed to at least 8,900 shuttered businesses, losses of 1.3 million jobs in the private sector, and an unemployment rate that skyrocketed to 13.5% through April.
In a survey taken at the end of May, 16% of Texans said they were facing financial ruin, and 22% said it would take them a year or more to recover. These figures likely have worsened since then.
After reopening some businesses in May and then reversing course over the summer, Gov. Abbott changed the method for assessing how and when to expand capacity at certain business venues.
The new system—considering COVID-19 hospitalizations as a share of hospital capacity in each of 22 trauma service areas — allowed a more targeted, timely, and temporary approach. And it reflected the intent of the initial lockdown response to “flatten the curve” so hospitals wouldn’t be overwhelmed.
If a trauma service area has a rate for seven straight days in which less than 15 percent of total hospital capacity has been COVID-19 patients, then most businesses there can expand from 50% to 75% capacity. Currently, 94% of Texans are in areas that can be at 75% capacity—contributing to more economic activity.
But state totals of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been at or near their highest since the pandemic started.
This has initiated calls by the Statesman’s Editorial Board for people to act responsibly, for a new path in Texas’ response that has been “marked by high hopes and half measures,” and for a “serious national strategy.”
But Gov. Abbott rightfully said lockdowns are off the table: “Our focal point is going be working to heal those who have COVID, get them out of hospitals quickly, make sure they get back to their normal lives,” he said.
With several vaccines getting closer to being available and with Pfizer announcing a pilot program to deliver the vaccine quickly in Texas, there is no reason for a lockdown.
Let’s acknowledge we can’t get to zero cases and deaths without eliminating liberty and livelihoods, and let’s better allocate our efforts in a targeted, temporary, and timely way until the vaccine is readily available and population immunity occurs.
Shutdowns and stay-at-home orders across Texas due to COVID-19 have spiked unemployment, slowed tax receipts, and forced the permanent closure of 8,900 Texas businesses since March. This, from one of the most dynamic and fast-growing economies in the world.
A return to previous success is possible, and necessary, by safely reopening Texas and promptly strengthening its institutions.
The Texas Model of relatively limited government, along with the pro-growth policies of the Trump administration, provided an institutional framework that helped create an attractive economic environment to let people prosper.
In 2019, Texas led the nation with GDP growth of 4.4% and with the most jobs added of nearly 350,000 (and the fourth-fastest growth rate of 2.7%). Also, Texas had the lowest supplemental poverty measure rate of 13.7%, (the SPM accounts for cost of housing differences across the nation and other key metrics), compared with other large states of New York (14.4%), Florida (15.4%), and California (17.2%)—the highest in the nation.
In addition, the Texas model was strengthened by a voter-approved constitutional ban on a personal income tax last year, property tax relief through reform and reductions, and a track record over the last three sessions of passing conservative budgets.
But these benefits couldn’t withstand the economic destruction of fear.
Fear led the public to decrease their interactions early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, before state and local governments created a whiplash of openings and closures with questionable results.
At the state level, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued a disaster proclamation on March 13, near the start of the pandemic, and then a stay-at-home order on March 31.
Some restrictions were lifted on April 17 and more were eased a couple of weeks later before another the rise in COVID-19 cases and positive tests—both have been questionable measures to consider when making policy— over the summer raised concern, resulting in a statewide mask mandate and further restrictions.
This sort of uncertainty makes it practically impossible for entrepreneurs to run a business or for job-seekers to find steady employment.
The recently released GDP by state figures for the second quarter of 2020 accounted for this destruction. Dealing with a U.S. economy contracting by an annualized rate of 5% in the first quarter and 31.4% in the second, Texas’s GDP shrank by a record-breaking 29% in the second quarter. But this put it in the second quintile of best-performing states, if contracting at a record annual pace can be considered “best,” with less loss than Florida (-30.1%), California (-31.5%), and New York (-36.3%).
While the third quarter growth improved dramatically across the U.S., the same is true in Texas as some restrictions were eased.
And on Sept. 17, Texas changed the metric used to evaluate the situation to COVID-19 hospitalizations as a share of all hospitalized patients, which aligns with the initial reasoning for government overreach to avoid overwhelming hospital capacity. This allowed some trauma service areas (TSA) with that metric below 15% for seven consecutive days to open most businesses to 75% capacity.
Then, on Oct. 7, a new Executive Order was issued that changed the metric to COVID-19 hospitalizations as a share of total hospital capacity, an improvement that better accounts for the flexibility that hospital managers have with beds. This order also expanded most businesses capacity to 75% in TSAs with less than 15% of this metric and allowed bars to open to 50% capacity—assuming a county’s judge approves it, which hasn’t been the case in most large urban counties.
The new metric results in only three (Amarillo, Lubbock, and El Paso) of 22 TSAs with a hospitalization rate above 15%, as of Nov. 9, meaning that 94% of Texans can have access to 75% of certain business capacity.
As COVID cases rise once more during flu season, calls for a second round of harsh restrictions are sure to happen. What these demands fail to understand is that the re-opening measures in place are not due to a blind indifference to human suffering, but rather a different, better path to evaluate tradeoffs.
In addition, the catastrophic drop in GDP across the state was due in no small part to the swinging pendulum of shutdown to rollback to shut down again, with unemployment rising to a historically high 8.3%. Another statewide shutdown would deal another staggering blow to an economy recovering from the fallout of the pandemic.
The Texas Model was responsible for the economic boom before the pandemic, and what comparative success we’ve had during the COVID-19 crisis was due to efforts to roll back restrictions in line with that model.
If the state is to fully recover, the next steps to do so must be made clear soon as without it the uncertainty and fear will contribute to more job losses and the demise of the once successful Texas Model.
Watch my presentation “Was the Cure Worse than #COVID19?” This presentation is part of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University's Public Speaker Series, where I explain the economics of how institutions, tradeoffs, and policy matters when dealing with this situation. You can also view my slides below.
With the Texas economy reeling in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting statewide shutdowns, economic recovery will be the top issue for the upcoming legislative session. Key to any attempt at recovery will be determining how much the state should spend.
The prosperity of many Texans at stake and the Texas Legislature ought to consider fiscal savings to cover any shortfall in the current budget period and pass a responsible budget in the upcoming session that starts in January.
The Texas economy has taken a beating from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns by state and local governments. Many Texans are struggling. And a recent national poll found 65% of voters say it will take more than a year for the U.S. economy to recover.
As Texas continues to recover, the necessity of keeping the government’s hands out of the taxpayer’s pockets is as important as ever. As the economy recovers, the natural inclination is to spend as much as necessary to support Texans reeling from the effects of COVID-19.
However, the old adage that there is no such thing as government funds, only taxpayer funds, should be at the front of legislators’ minds as they attempt to address the fallout from the pandemic.
With that spirit in mind, we at TPPF recently released our latest 2022-23 Conservative Texas Budget (CTB) that sets a maximum threshold on appropriations at $246.8 billion.
This amount is the result of increasing the 2020-21 appropriations by 5% growth rate, which was calculated using the state’s population growth plus consumer price inflation to capture taxpayers’ ability to pay for their government. These appropriations exclude extraordinary funds that shouldn’t go into the baseline budget because they’re one-time costs, such as funds to Hurricane Harvey recovery and property tax relief last session and those explicitly to COVID-19 efforts.
The CTB has been a success in the sense that it has helped give state officials a maximum benchmark with which to hold appropriations to within taxpayers’ ability to pay for it. By limiting growth in the budget, legislators have helped strengthen the Texas Model of low taxes and more freedom by cutting the business margins tax and property taxes by billions of dollars since the 2015 session when TPPF created the CTB.
Specifically, the average growth of the two-year state appropriations fell from 12% during the five budgets from 2004 to 2015 to an average of just 5.5% during the last three budgets. And after appropriations grew well above population growth plus inflation of 7.3% in the earlier period, the more recent growth was below this key metric of 6.3%.
This fiscal responsibility in the last three budget cycles must be continued because the excess in the earlier period has compounded to put more pressure on taxpayers’ budgets.
For example, if the state had adhered to this metric every budget period since the 2004-05 budget, appropriations would be $37.3 billion less, saving families of four, on average, about $2,500 per year—savings which would have been invaluable with the lockdowns’ lost wages and jobs.
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar recently reported that state sales taxes were down a whopping 6.1% in September over the prior year. This has contributed to a projected $4.6 billion deficit by the end of fiscal year 2021. Any attempt to raise appropriations above population growth plus inflation or raise taxes fails to take into consideration this deficit because it will detrimental to the recovery. The responsible action now is to cut spending as much as possible to make up the shortfall.
And to help put Texans on the best path to a full recovery from this unprecedented situation is to consider cutting wasteful and unnecessary appropriations at the very least not appropriate more than the Conservative Texas Budget in the upcoming session. Doing so will improve the proven successful Texas Model so more people have the chance to fully recover much faster than anticipated.
After the year we’ve had, we need a clear conservative fiscal approach in the upcoming session.
Americans want to return to work after months of joblessness due to the COVID-19 pandemic-related business closures. But too many Texans can’t—because of the industry they work in.
There was some hope that this might change after Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that took effect on Oct. 14 expanded the state’s reopening plan by adding bars to the list of certain businesses allowed to partially open. But one of the stipulations in the order to open bars to 50% capacity is already proving hardest to overcome: gaining the approval from the county judge.
Despite low COVID-19 hospitalization rates in most of the 22 trauma service areas across the state, many bars do not have the judge’s approval they need to open.
This limitation—among others—hits many Texans while they’re down. For example, Texas’s 8.3% unemployment rate in September is historically high and substantially higher than the near record-low rate of 3.5% in February before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under the latest order, fewer restrictions are placed on those areas that are below the 15% threshold metric of COVID-19 hospitalizations as a share of total hospital capacity for at least seven consecutive days. These areas can have most businesses expand to 75% capacity and allow bars to open to 50% capacity with the approval of the county’s judge. But if an area’s metric is above this 15% threshold for seven straight days, then certain businesses are rolled back to 50% capacity and bars must close.
Fortunately, this order allows a more targeted policy approach to focus public and government assistance on populations that need it most. The chosen metric also helps bring a more objective measure that’s less susceptible to manipulation—intentional or otherwise—while supporting the government’s initial argument for preventing COVID-19 from overwhelming hospitals.
While this is an appropriate and safe step towards opening Texas, uncertainty remains for employers and workers who are left in the dark without a timeline for when the state will be fully open. In other words, when will Texans have their freedoms back so that they can live out their dreams responsibly?
This sort of certainty is what will help give people a sense of calm in this storm and support a more vibrant economy that will lead us back to a robust situation like we had in February. Adding to the current uncertainty, local officials are making bad decisions by refusing to rely on the evidence.
Specifically, many of the major county judges insist that the threat levels are still too high for any further reopening efforts. But the data indicate otherwise. In fact, as of Oct. 27, most areas where 94% of Texans reside are maintaining a hospitalization rate below 15% with only the three trauma service areas that include El Paso, Amarillo, and Lubbock on the restricted list.
The evidence did not stop the counties of Dallas, Harris, and Travis from firmly putting their feet down when it comes to reopening bars. Judges in Dallas and Harris counties quickly announced their rejection of opting into the order despite their preceding seven-day COVID-19 hospitalization rate at that time holding steady around 8% and 4%, respectively.
Dallas and Houston are not alone. The Travis County judge, which houses the state’s capitol in Austin, announced its intention to keep bars closed until further notice. Its preceding seven-day average was even lower than Dallas and Houston, running below 3%. In fact, the Austin area’s rate has been below the Governor’s 15% threshold since July 22.
With numbers this low and personal responsibility in place, why shouldn’t bars and similar businesses be allowed to open?
Failing to rely on the data when making life-altering decisions demonstrates that these decisions are not based solely on the health, safety, and livelihoods of Texans. If they were, Texas would be further along to fully opening, and Texans could live their lives more freely.
The evidence supports further reopening and local officials would do right by Texans to allow it. One thing is clear: Texans want to get back to normal.
The Texas economy is recovering, but there’s much room for improvement. The Texas Workforce Commission recently released the Texas jobs report for August 2020. While there have been improvements in the state’s labor market, there are challenges to return to the robust situation of February 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns by state and local governments. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis recently reported that in Texas in the second quarter of 2020 on an annualized basis GDP growth declined by 29% and personal income increased by 34.1%.
The Tax Foundation recently published a map of the country illustrating the property taxes paid in each state as a percentage of owner-occupied housing value in 2018. Of all 50 states, Texas had the seventh highest property tax burden in the country, with an effective rate of 1.69% of occupied housing value. This burden is something that Texans across the state know too well.
The article accompanying the map acknowledges that Texas to some extent relies on high property taxes in lieu of other tax categories – i.e., income taxes – though other states without an income tax do not necessarily have a high property tax burden (e.g., Florida). Regardless, in an economy hampered by COVID-19 and government lockdowns and with homeowners under substantial financial and mental stress, local governments have a responsibility to reduce the burden on taxpayers.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation has put forward proposals to reduce burdensome property taxes by focusing on Texas embracing final sales taxes over property taxes and governments implementing sound budget practices.
A final sales tax system is a more attractive alternative to a property tax. Property taxes are calculated on oftentimes subjective property values, which can rise without a change in homeowners’ ability to pay; Texans can adjust their spending habits to a sales tax, however. This results in a compounding effect of property taxes on holders of property every year that reduces their ability to pay them, forcing many to lose their property and to never truly own it.
One way to ease the property tax burden across Texas is to buy down school districts’ maintenance and operations (M&O) property taxes, which is about half of the property tax burden. This could be done by limiting state spending and using any surplus funds to cut the local property tax until it is eliminated, which could take roughly a decade, moving Texas towards sales taxes as they are the state’s top revenue source. However, this could be difficult to maintain session after session with the limitations on state and local government spending to achieve this in a timely manner, if at all.
Another way is for the state to immediately replace school M&O property taxes with higher sales taxes. An immediate swap would eliminate the risk that the switch to a final sales tax would be only temporary, a failure common to past property tax relief efforts. However, an immediate switch may be politically challenging to implement, so a way to mitigate this is to limit state spending and use surplus funds to cut the sales tax rate over time.
Switching M&O costs to sales taxes is not the only measure local (or state) governments should adopt. The other, and possibly even more fundamental to reducing barriers for opportunities to let people prosper, is implementing sound budgetary practices.
By reducing government spending through things like freezing new hires and pay raises and placing a moratorium on incurring any new taxpayer-funded debt, there are plenty of opportunities to cut taxes.
Local governments should volunteer for third-party audits to determine where areas of waste can be eliminated along with expensive lobbying contracts and longevity pay. Ultimately, practicing zero-based-budgeting, whereby local governments must justify every expenditure, could help achieve setting budget priorities that support effective government programs.
Any government approach to supporting an economic recovery in the wake of COVID-19 must begin with easing the burden on Texas taxpayers, and that approach must include reducing the burden of soaring property taxes and implementing sound budgeting at all levels of government.
Today the Texas Public Policy Foundation released the threshold number for the 2022-23 Conservative Texas Budget in a live event and released a paper on the topic. The Conservative Texas Budget is an approach to the state budget limiting its growth so spending doesn’t outpace Texans’ ability to pay for it. Measured in terms of population growth plus inflation, the Conservative Texas Budget establishes a maximum threshold for growth in the state’s initial appropriations.
For the 2022-23 state budget that percentage is 5% for a total appropriation of $246.8 Billion.
“The Conservative Texas Budget is an effective maximum threshold for prioritizing the taxpayer in the state budget process as every dollar spent comes out of the pocket of Texans,” said TPPF’s Chief Economist Vance Ginn, Ph.D. “Since this approach was implemented ahead of the 2015 legislative session, budgets have grown less than half the rate of the five prior state budgets. This trend should continue for the 2022-23 Texas budget especially as many families are recovering from the recession due to COVID-19 and government lockdowns.”
The 2022-23 Conservative Texas Budget sets a maximum threshold for the state’s budget that will be passed during the 2021 Legislature so government grows by less than taxpayers’ ability to pay for it.
Production of crude oil and natural gas has historically fluctuated based on many market-driven and geopolitical factors. Because the Texas Legislature collects severance taxes from this volatile production to primarily fund the state’s rainy day fund, the purpose for and use of the ESF must be worthy.
Texas’s economy took a major blow in March from COVID-19 as it reduced Texans’ activity across the state. Then lockdowns by state and local governments in response to the novel coronavirus further exacerbated the economic fallout. The economic data are clear that the labor market, economic outlook, and social mobility remain well below where it was in February. These weaknesses tell the story of how many Texas families and employers are struggling in their lives and livelihoods during this trying time without hope until government reopens the economy.
I provide options for how to substantially reduce the high property tax burden in Texas by limiting government spending with either a buydown of property taxes over time or a swap with sales taxes immediately so that Texans have more opportunities to prosper.
Overview: The Texas Workforce Commission recently released the Texas jobs report for July 2020. The report highlights improvements in the state’s labor market but there are challenges to get back to its peak in February 2020, which was before the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns of society by state and local governments. Texas’s private employment in July during the government-induced recession due to COVID-19 is at the lowest level since December 2016.
Lawmaker: At least 38 local government in Texas have attempted to raise property taxes above state cap
(The Center Square) – Several Texas counties have chosen to not raise county property taxes this year, keeping rates the same or lowering them in some cases. But 38 taxing entities have tried to increase property taxes over the state-mandated cap requiring taxpayer approval, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt said.
At a Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) panel discussion last week, the Houston-area senator who serves as the Senate Property Tax Committee Chair said 16 counties and 23 cities attempted to increase taxes over the limit set by the legislature.
Austin was among them. The Austin City Council recently voted to increase taxes above the limit enacted by the legislature last year, and voters will either approve or reject it this November. Several cities rejected increases in property taxes, including Dallas and Longview.
For the fifth year in a row, Collin County announced it was lowering its property tax rate in order to keep homeowners’ bills roughly unchanged from the previous year. In the past decade, the county has adopted no increased revenue rates nine times.
Previously referred to as the effective rate, the no-new-revenue rate collects the same total amount of property tax revenue as it did the previous year. However, what homeowners owe might go up depending on their property’s value increasing. A static or lower rate on a higher value still results in a higher tax bill for some.
In Denton County, the new tax rate is below the current tax rate and the no-new-revenue tax rate. Plano County’s budget is based on a “no-new-revenue” property tax rate.
Tarrant County also kept its property tax rate the same, which is slightly below the no-new-revenue rate. But because of rising home values, the average property tax bill will increase by roughly $9.
“The problem with Texas property taxes has always been as property values go up, tax rates never came down," Bettencourt said. "So values inched up and in some cases increased by 10 percent each year and were never offset by taxes going down.”
Bettencourt helped pave the way for property tax reform in the last legislative session. SB2 reduced cap on potential property tax increases for the first time in 30 years, from 8 percent to 3.5 percent. HB3 placed a hard cap of 2.5 percent for school districts. Both were combined in the property tax bill signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.
Any attempt to increase taxes over the caps requires approval by voters.
Dr. Vance Ginn, chief economist at TPPF, said that the rollback rate was established in 1979. In 1981, it was raised from 5 percent to 8 percent when inflation was running double digits. But over the past 25 years, inflation hasn’t been above 4 percent.
In 2019, it was time to adjust the rates, Ginn said, to protect homeowners from ongoing increased taxation. It couldn’t have been more timely, he said, since within less than a year more than 4 million Texans filed for unemployment during COVID-19 restrictions and state and local governments were seeing less revenue.
It’s problematic that local governments “need to expand their budgets in some capacity by more than 3.5 percent,” Ginn said, “when Texas families are often times seeing their incomes fall dramatically from having some sort of income down to zero, [… receiving unemployment], and some of these local taxing entities are saying, ‘You know what, we need to raise our taxes more. By the way, the way we are going to do that is spending more along the way.’”
In Harris County, property taxes increased by 29 percent from 2014 to 2018, whereas population growth and inflation increased by 11 percent, Ginn said. The comparison between taxes and population growth and inflation is often used as a metric to determine how much the burden of government should grow to stay within the means of taxpayers, he said.
According to a recent WalletHub study, Texas ranked 32nd highest among 50 states for its overall tax burden of 8.2 percent. Texas property owners paid 3.95 percent in property taxes and 4.25 percent in sales and excise taxes.
It took a decade to get tax relief on both sides, Bettencourt said, adding that, “The pressure to spend more taxpayer money is ingrained in government.”
Today, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar revised the Certification Revenue Estimate (CRE) to project a fiscal 2021 ending shortfall of $4.58 billion which Hegar attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and recent volatility in oil prices.
“Today’s update by Texas Comptroller Hegar on the budget shortfall shows the importance of reining in government spending without raising taxes as families across the state are struggling financially from the COVID-19 situation,” said TPPF’s Chief Economist Vance Ginn, Ph.D. “Fortunately, state leaders have already asked some agencies to find 5% savings to cover part of this shortfall, and we recommend that every agency use all efforts, including zero-based budgeting to find additional savings up to 15% by cutting wasteful and unnecessary spending. This would also alleviate the need for any more state bailouts from the federal government. By safely reopening Texas and getting people back to work and students in schools, the state will be best positioned to deal with any tax receipts shortfall while providing the best opportunities for Texans to flourish.”
The projection is a decrease from the $2.89 billion positive year-end balance originally projected in the Oct. 2019 CRE.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.