The debate over how the Texas Legislature will cut taxes this session has certainly been a show — a wonkish policy discussion punctuated by populist exhortations from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and his allies.
These populist war cries can be neatly summarized like this: Texans are clamoring for lower property taxes and were promised this relief in the 2014 campaign, so the Legislature must give the people what they want or risk their wrath come primary season.
Both the voters’ attitudes toward taxes and the coalitional politics playing out within and between the two chambers suggest that the property tax cutters are, at best, selectively following through on their rhetoric.
Like most examples of modern populism, their commitment to giving the people what they want goes only so far, and it coexists with other political priorities.
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Supporters of the Senate leadership’s approach to tax relief frequently invoked findings from the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll to frame their preference for property tax reductions.
In that poll, we asked Texans about five different types of taxes, finding that they were most dissatisfied with property taxes (55 percent), outpacing the motor fuels tax (at 40 percent) and the sales tax (34 percent).
But if the implication is that the Legislature should make tax policy decisions based on what Texans want, what are we to make of the poll’s finding that voters are relatively indifferent to the business margins tax?
It’s the one tax that the governor and the leadership of both chambers before the session even started were largely in agreement about cutting, and the only one of the proposed cuts that the governor said would trigger a veto if not included in the budget.
In the same UT/TT Poll, only 2 percent of Texans cited taxes as the most important problem facing the state, and only 3 percent of voters (and 5 percent of Republicans) said that lowering business taxes should be the Legislature’s top priority.
Even when asked about the subject in the narrower context of tax cut alternatives, a plurality of Texans have no opinion about the Legislature’s primary target (39 percent), and nearly as much of the public is satisfied with the business margins tax (29 percent) as is dissatisfied (32 percent).
So much for the public clamoring for tax relief.
There are, of course, policy reasons to discuss at least revamping the business margins tax, just as there are reasons to consider revisiting the state’s reliance on property taxes.
But the lack of formed opinions about the business margins tax, and the even division among those who express an opinion, suggests that responding to the popular will is only one of the factors at play in the debate.
The consensus among the political class on cutting the business margins tax likely reflects the seemingly universal opposition to the tax among business groups large and small.
The Senate originally proposed a business margins tax reduction that would have focused on small businesses and an increase in the homestead exemption that would have done nothing for the business community.
The House version relied on a larger across-the-board cut to the margins tax and a reduction in the sales tax, something that both consumers and businesses pay.
Not surprisingly, the House proposal was more popular with the major business groups.
So while the last UT/TT Poll found that a little over half of Texans are dissatisfied with the property tax, the constant nodding toward those views is accompanied by a good amount of winking, too — and indifference toward most Texans’ relative lack of concern about the taxes likely to be cut most significantly.
Jim Henson is a pollster for the Texas Tribune and director of the Texas Politics Project. Joshua Blank is manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.