May 29, 2011

No new taxes in state budget, but Texans likely to feel the cost of session in other ways

Local governments fear they will have to make up for revenue they lost during the session.

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AUSTIN -- Lawmakers may have passed a budget with no new taxes, but Texans and their wallets will not escape unscathed.

Lobbyists and watchdogs say that even without major across-the-board tax or fee increases during the 82nd legislative session, which ends today, a variety of new laws will carry a financial cost for Texans.

"The old saying is that everybody fears for their pocketbook during the legislative session," Austin political consultant Bill Miller said. "That's why we only let them meet once every two years and only for six months."

Lawmakers have struggled for six months to close a multibillion-dollar revenue gap in the budget for the next two years, ultimately passing a $172.3 billion budget that reduces state spending by more than $15 billion, shrinking many state services, including education and social services.

Dick Lavine, a senior fiscal analyst at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, stresses that all Texans will ultimately pay a higher price at the local level.

"The main pocketbook effect will be from local governments having to raise taxes and fees to pay for services pushed down to them from the failure of the state to maintain spending," he said. "So to the extent that we all rely on adequate public services, we are all losers."

One measure that could significantly affect cities and counties is a plan in the budget bill to cut the amount of mixed-beverage taxes that communities receive from 10.7 percent to 8.2 percent. Fort Worth could lose more than $1.1 million in the next two years; Tarrant County could lose $2.9 million during the same time, estimates show.

"We are looking at some impact," Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said. "In many cases, we've been able to avoid unfunded mandates at the municipal level, but it's a balancing act for the Legislature.

"We also have to wait and see what bills the governor will sign or allow to become law that we don't even know about yet."

Gov. Rick Perry has until June 19 to sign, veto or allow bills to become law without his signature.

Pocketbook impact

Here's a look at some proposals that could affect Texans and their wallets -- for better or worse:

Boating education: Texans who participate in the state's online boater education program may soon pay more than a $3 service fee, as some state employees say the fee is less than other fees collected for similar online courses. House Bill 3722, which allows the state to raise the fee, has been sent to the governor.

Child support: Some parents paying child support through the attorney general's office may see new fees -- a $25 annual service fee and a $3 monthly processing fee, under a provision in HB 1, which is awaiting Perry's signature.

Fishing: Texas anglers who cheat at fishing contests may find themselves facing a Class A misdemeanor, which carries fines of up to $4,000. If the prizes to be awarded total $10,000 or more in money or goods, the fisher faces a third-degree felony charge with a fine of up to $10,000. HB 1806 has been signed into law.

Military/veterans: Some disabled veterans will be exempt, under HB 1148, from paying the fee to obtain a personal identification card from the Department of Public Safety. Also, active-duty military service members would be protected from foreclosures on their mortgages and deeds of trust while they are on active duty or deployed to another country.

Unapproved recording: Texans who make unauthorized recordings of live events, such as those on cell phone cameras, could face an undetermined fine and/or jail time if they wrongly distribute the recordings. The amount of the fines and length of the jail time would be determined how many unauthorized recordings they made and distributed during a six-month time period.

Motorists: Drivers who don't slow down or move away from tow trucks on the side of the road that are using emergency signals -- similar to the speed and space required for emergency vehicles that are pulled over -- could soon be subject to fines of as much as $2,000. Also, motorists who hit and damage a permanent or semi-permanent structure - houses, buildings, fences - and leave the scene without looking for the property owners who were impacted could soon end up in jail and/or paying a fine of up to $2,000, depending on how bad the damage is.And drivers who skip court to avoid handling traffic tickets may find themselves paying more to register their vehicles.

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

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