It’s been Tax Relief Week at Senate Finance, to use the branding fashioned by Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, for this week’s hearings.
But one thing became apparent after several days: Tax relief means different things to different people.
On Monday, conversation among Senators exposed fears among some of Nelson's fellow budget writers that she's moving too fast on tax cuts.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, was among the most critical. He pointed to big-ticket needs like health care for retired teachers and widespread problems at state agency facilities as reason to be concerned that Nelson's proposed $4.6 billion in cuts may be too high.
“I am concerned that if you do the tax cuts first and identify an arbitrary figure, we are not addressing the basic needs that we have already identified," Whitmire said.
State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and lead author of most of the property tax cut bills under consideration at Monday's hearing, said some of his colleagues were ignoring political reality.
“Elections have consequences," Bettencourt said. "This was campaigned on to a great degree across the state."
Several senators expressed regret on Tuesday about having passed the business margins tax in 2006, advocating instead for the tax’s abolishment.
In fact, the thrust of the conversation seemed to be directed not about how to reform the tax but how lawmakers could pay for getting rid of it.
Even though the tax has never performed as originally expected, getting rid of it would blow a hole in the budget to the tune of $4.7 billion annually, or about twice that for the state's two-year fiscal cycle.
That led Nelson to quip, “If anybody’s got $9 billion laying around, let me know.”
Business groups the next day told senators, though, that they were focusing on the wrong thing with the margins tax if the intent was to provide meaningful relief to businesses.
Dale Craymer, president of the business-backed Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, perhaps best summed up the business interests’ position when he said, “The biggest sore thumb that faces Texas is the property tax, not the business tax.”
So as the week comes to a close, the resolve among Senate Republicans to create “meaningful” tax relief remains undiminished. And with their numbers, a tax relief package is sure to be sent to the House.
But the hearings themselves have also demonstrated that it’s tougher to create consensus on the best way to do this, even among the groups the relief is intended to help.