2008-06-26 / Opinion

Bullock's tax idea renewed

Dave McNeely

Contact McNeely at dmcneely@austin. rr.com or (512) 458-2963. Contact McNeely at dmcneely@austin. rr.com or (512) 458-2963. Somewhere, Bob Bullock is laughing. That's because Texas legislators today are scratching their heads about the widespread distaste for a new so-called "margins tax" on business.

The late lieutenant governor, who died nine years ago Tuesday, had occasionally mentioned an income tax over his 16 years as state comptroller as a possible way to allow Texas' tax revenues to grow with its economy and to reduce property taxes.

But, when it was politically necessary, he had also sought to duck responsibility for backing an income tax. In 1990, in his first race for lieutenant governor, Republican opponent Rob Mosbacher Jr. charged in TV ads and speeches that Bullock supported a tax on income.

Bullock's campaign spokesman Rafe Greenlee said Bullock opposed an income tax, but was "not afraid to talk about it. He wants to have an open debate about Texas's tax structure."

Bullock won the election, and became the Senate's presiding officer.

However, two months after Bullock and new Democratic governor Ann Richards were sworn in, Bullock blurted out his support for an income tax. His audience was a group of newspaper editors at the governor's mansion.

"Texas needs an income tax," said Bullock, standing on the mansion's grand staircase.

It was like he'd poked a hornet's nest with a stick. Paul Hobby, Bullock's chief of staff at the time - and the son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby, who'd endorsed an income tax on his way out of office - said the reaction was intense.

"We literally had two fax machines melt into the corner over the weekend," Hobby said.

Still, Bullock made a valiant try.

He even talked Democratic senators like John Montford, then of Lubbock, into sponsoring it.

But, House Speaker Gib Lewis said fewer than 40 of the 150 House members would vote for it. Gov. Richards described its chances as "slim to none."

Bullock finally acknowledged it was dead.

Still, Republicans loading up to challenge Bullock's re-election in 1994, saw his income tax stance as a big part of their ammunition.

But Bullock stole the issue. By the 1993 session, Bullock proposed a constitutional amendment to prohibit a state income tax -unless voters first endorsed it in a referendum. If they did, the money was earmarked two thirds for property tax cuts and one third for education.

Some castigated Bullock for blocking Texas from ever having an income tax. But he'd actually made one possible with a majority vote in each house of the Legislature, and a majority vote of the people. Had those Republicans who wanted a constitutional amendment to simply outlaw an income tax succeeded, it would have taken a two-thirds vote in each house to ever undo it.

Although some Republicans claimed that Bullock's amendment was just a way to sugarcoat an income tax, most Republican legislators voted for it. The House supported it 122-7, and the Senate 28-1.

Voters liked it, too. In November of 1993, they endorsed it by more than a two-to-one ratio.

So 14 years after the amendment was passed, and nine years after his death, Bullock's Tax Revenge remains in the Texas Constitution.

He didn't want to make an income tax impossible. But he wanted to make it difficult enough that to happen, it would require the broad and deep support of businessmen, Republicans, and conservative Democrats who over the years have killed it.

For the past few years, Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, has been the chief legislative advocate for an income tax. He tells any group that will listen that an income tax is the only workable alternative to give Texas children a good education, while still bringing down ultra-high property taxes. He points out that if Texas had a modest income tax like that in Kansas, the total tax bill for most Texans would go down.

Though a growing number of legislators support it, Shapleigh hasn't gotten very far with the idea.

Maybe the unrest over the new business tax, which most Republican legislators supported and most Democrats opposed, will create enough of a political storm that one of these years, Bullock will finally get his way - even from the grave.

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