OPINION: State Capital Highlights: Senate bills set stage for tax, debt relief

AUSTIN — A trio of powerful state senators, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, on March 5 jointly announced the filing of legislation they coauthored to cut taxes and pay off state debt.

Patrick, who presides over the 31-member Senate, Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound; Senate Business & Commerce Chair Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler; and Senate Finance Vice Chair Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, each delivered brief statements.

Patrick said the state constitution limits spending to no more than the growth of the Texas economy and appropriations intended to cut taxes or reduce state debt also count against the spending cap. The legislation, in the form of a bill and a joint resolution, if passed and signed into law, would allow voters to decide whether or not to exempt tax cuts and debt payments from the state’s constitutional spending limit. 

“Debts today become taxes tomorrow,” Hinojosa explained. “As Texans we pride ourselves as a pay-as-you-go-state, but in the past 12 years our state and local debt has skyrocketed. As responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars we need to rein in our dependence on debt and get serious about paying off our current outstanding debt. Exempting appropriations for tax relief and debt relief from the spending cap will free up more dollars for critical areas like education and infrastructure in the state budget without busting the constitutional spending cap.”

The legislation has been sent to the Senate Finance Committee for consideration, and companion bills have been filed in the House by state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland.

Transportation bills pass

On votes of 28-2, the Senate tentatively approved two measures intended to increase transportation funding. 

Committee Substitute Senate Bill 5 and Senate Joint Resolution 5 by Transportation Committee Chair Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, would let voters decide whether to approve a split in the state motor vehicle sales tax. The bills have moved to the House for consideration.

As CSSB 5 is presently worded, the first $2.5 billion in that class of revenue would go into general revenue and the next $2.5 billion would be dedicated to the Texas Department of Transportation. Further revenue collected by the state would be split so the comptroller would deposit 50 percent to the State Highway Fund, 30 percent to the general revenue fund and 20 percent to the Available School Fund.

Sens. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Kirk Watson, D-Austin, cast votes in opposition. In an excerpt from a longer statement explaining his vote, Ellis said, “Dedicated funds are poor public policy simply because they limit flexibility. This year a critical need may not be as critical next year, and funding cannot follow problems. By constitutionally dedicating this funding, we are creating a new multi-billion dollar hole that is going to be difficult to fill during years when the budget is tight.”

Unemployment rate falls

Texas’ seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell to 4.4 percent in January down from 4.6 percent in December 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last week.

Texas Workforce Commission on March 6 reported the adding of 20,100 seasonally adjusted non-farm jobs in January for a total increase of 392,900 jobs over the year. “We are pleased to see that the growth of jobs in our state is continuing,” said Andres Alcantar, chair of the Texas Workforce Commission. 

Texas employers added 20,100 jobs including growth in nine of 11 major industries in January, which is a great testament to the strength and resilience of our economy and labor market, Alcantar said.

Hope Andrade, commissioner representing employers with the Texas Workforce Commission, added, “The latest labor market data indicates that Texas is approaching the 12 million jobs milestone, with 11,769,600 jobs now in Texas. Employers continue to propel Texas on a path paved with growth and innovation.”

DPS increases enforcement

Texas Department of Public Safety on March 6 announced an increase in DWI patrols from March 7 to March 22. 

State troopers will focus on high-risk locations at times when alcohol-related crashes are most frequent and in areas with high concentrations of Spring Break activity.

During last year’s Spring Break enforcement period, state troopers made 1,389 DWI arrests, some 18,886 speeding citations, 3,343 seat belt/child safety seat tickets and about 23,600 other citations.  Also, state troopers made 861 fugitive arrests and 728 felony arrests during the period, the agency reported.

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