Texas and football go hand-in-hand. There is nothing like the two-minute drill at the end of a game with increased adrenaline pushing you on to victory. Texas lawmakers are likely feeling a similar jolt in an effort to appropriate the remaining $16 billion of the $40 billion that Congress sent to Texas in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) earlier this year.
The Legislature has done a good job so far this year in keeping a responsible budget, but these federal funds could tempt lawmakers to spike the football early—allocating ARPA money that doesn’t help the Texas taxpayer while putting the nation further into debt. In fact, a responsible approach would lead Texas to reject these funds, given the state has a large budget surplus, though there’s likely no political will to do so.
Let’s return to the first quarter of the game.
The Legislature passed the 2022-23 state budget well below TPPF’s Conservative Texas Budget (CTB), which sets a maximum threshold on the budget based on the average taxpayer’s ability to pay for it (as measured by population growth plus inflation). And lawmakers parked $12 billion in the state’s rainy day fund.
This approach maintained the overall strategy that the Legislature has been operating under for the last four budgets. By staying within the CTB maximum threshold, and passing into law a stronger spending limit this year, lawmakers pledged to keep more money in taxpayers’ pocket.
Now the state is in the fourth quarter and is determining how to allocate the ARPA funds, which are your taxpayer dollars. The nearly $16 billion offers plenty of opportunity—both good and bad—for lawmakers to spend hard-earned taxpayer dollars.
The game plans in the Texas Senate with SB 8 and the House with HB 145 are largely the same, with just a $350 million difference. Most items appear to abide by the restrictions on the use of funds outlined by the U.S. Treasury’s interim guidance. So far, so good. But about $500 million is being set aside for university construction in both bills, which doesn’t count as infrastructure (the feds define infrastructure as sewer, water, and broadband). How is this a good use of taxpayer dollars?
In their current plans, both start strong with over $7.2 billion designated to pay the outstanding debt owed to the U.S. Treasury’s Unemployment Trust Fund and to replenish most of what was in the fund pre-shutdown. This is essential because without paying, this there would be a huge spike in employer taxes that support this fund. But we would recommend $7.8 billion for full funding to provide a better cushion.
The next strong play in both plans is to allocate $3.7 billion for public safety and criminal justice. These funds appear to be allocated to swap with general revenue funds already appropriated in the current budget cycle for border security and wall thereby not further growing spending. This could also free funds up later for property tax relief. This allocation provides serious relief to taxpayers as the state has been subsidizing the border crisis for the rest of the country because of the inept leadership on this issue in Washington.
These strong plays follow two-thirds of the Foundation’s winning strategy for ARPA funds. The third one is necessary to get Texas across the goal line—property tax relief.
Burdensome local property taxes continue to climb, forcing some Texans to delay major life decisions like marriage and home ownership. Using the rest of the ARPA funds to add to the at least $2 billion in SB 1 to reduce school district M&O property taxes for the 2022-23 school year would help lower tax bills at a time when many taxpayers are suffering from the effects of the shutdowns. This combination of plays along with HB 90 and other moves could eliminate property taxes by 2033. Three states have already started cutting taxes using ARPA funds so Texas shouldn’t delay.
In addition to using ARPA funds for the plays above to move the down the field, the Legislature should use best practices with these funds for transparency and accountability for taxpayers. Any use of ARPA funds must be for only one-time expenditures, which will help avoid a fiscal cliff like that after Obama’s one-time “stimulus” funds in 2009 dried up. ARPA funds should also be separated from Texas’ base budget. And lawmakers should post the allocation and distribution of funds on a website.
The Legislature is in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. This is where champions are made. Let’s ensure Texas taxpayers win the day with a responsible game plan, rather than irresponsibly spending ARPA fund.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.