Taxes won’t increase, but many fees will

AUSTIN – Putting an exclamation point on a legislative session that opened with lawmakers facing a $9.9 billion shortfall, the all-Republican leadership team gave itself a pat on the back for not raising taxes.

“State leaders showed the kind of budgetary discipline families must show: We set priorities, separated wants from needs and stretched every dollar,” Gov. Rick Perry said a day after lawmakers finished their business. “We protected the pocketbooks of Texas taxpayers while protecting vital programs, increasing funding for public education and health care.”

But where Perry and others see discipline, Capitol critics see dodged responsibility.

“Let’s just say that some pocketbooks got protected more than others,” said Richard Kouri, spokesman for the Texas State Teachers Association. “Every school employee in the state lost $500 for insurance, and we also saw a doubling of the amount active employees pay into the health insurance system for retired teachers.”

And school employees aren’t the only ones who are going to see a bigger bite taken out of their paychecks after the 140-day legislative session that ended Monday.

Following the agenda set by state leaders, lawmakers also pared back the rolls for human services programs, dramatically jacked up the fines for traffic violations and opened the door to higher tuition at the state’s premier universities.

To comply with federal clean-air mandates, lawmakers also increased from $13 to $33 the vehicle-transfer fee paid by car buyers in high-pollution areas such as Fort Worth-Dallas. Under the same measure, car buyers in less polluted areas will now pay $28.

Also, the fines for many traffic offenses will be raised by $30, with the bulk of the money going to fund trauma centers.

In addition, Texas will adopt a point system to punish drivers who receive multiple traffic tickets. For example, a typical speeding ticket would be worth two points, and causing an accident would be three points.

Motorists who rack up six points over 36 months will have to pay a $100 surcharge to keep their licenses. Additional fines will be assessed at $25 per point.

The state will also assess a $1,000 surcharge for first convictions for driving while intoxicated. Those who drove without a license or with a suspended license will be fined an additional $100.

State university boards of regents can now set tuition rates. The new policy, which ends the long-standing practice of uniform tuition set by the Legislature, will not take effect until the spring 2004 semester, so it remains unclear which universities will increase rates.

To help offset any increase brought about by the deregulation of tuition, the Legislature increased need-based grants for college students from $280 million to $324 million. However, that still falls $89 million short of what the Higher Education Coordinating Board sought for all eligible students expected to apply. As a result, eligibility requirements may be tightened.

Fees for hunting and fishing licenses will rise starting Aug. 15, but not because of an act of the Legislature. Last month, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission voted to increase the price of both from $19 to $23. A combination license will cost $42 instead of $32.

Advocates for reduced government spending give the lawmakers and the governor high marks for putting the concerns of taxpayers first.

An effort to raise the cigarette tax by $1 a pack failed without so much as a hearing in committee. The same was true for a proposal to allow voters to decide whether Texas should levy a personal income tax.

“I think this was a very good session for taxpayers, no question about it,” said Peggy Venable, who heads the conservative watchdog group Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy. “I think the governor and the leadership team deserves high marks for saying they weren’t going to raise taxes and sticking to it.”

Anne Dunkelberg, an analyst for the liberal-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities, pointed out that the rolls for the state-backed Children’s Health Insurance Program will be cut by about 170,000 and that the hours will be curtailed for the Medicaid-funded home health aides who help the disabled.

“All they [lawmakers] did was shift the costs down to the local governments, and that will mean higher taxes at the city and county level,” Dunkelberg said. “They are the ones who will have to take up the slack.”

Bill Allaway, president of the nonpartisan Texas Taxpayers Research Organization, said it’s too soon to calculate the full impact of the budget. But he said he doubts that local governments will institute huge tax increases or slash services.

“There’s a little bit of truth to both of those, but in reality, nobody really knows yet,” Allaway said. “Personally, I don’t think there is going to be as big a hue and cry as some might imply. But it remains an incomplete picture right now.”

Early indications are that Tarrant County was spared many of the ill effects expected from state cutbacks.

Tom Roy, the Tarrant County Hospital District’s government affairs liaison, said that when the ominous talk of steep budget reductions was initiated by top state officials, it appeared that the cost to the district would reach as high as $28.5 million.

That number is now estimated at $4.5 million and could drop to about $515,000 if Tarrant County receives its share of a $1.28 billion federal grant announced last month.

“The best way to put it from our point of view is that we dodged a great big bullet,” Roy said.