Sales Tax and Fiscal Sustainability

The Texas economy has been a top performer for many years. Indeed, even with the ups and downs of the national economy, since 2002, Texas’ economy grew at an 5.7 percent annual compound rate. As the economy changes, however, all states, including Texas are facing a fiscal challenge. As the economy includes more services and fewer goods, traditional sales taxes are bringing in less revenue.

Based on reports from the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, Texas has seen its taxable sales activity grow by only 3.1 percent annually.  With no income tax, sales taxes are a major source of state revenue (26.4 percent of the total in 2015).

Another way of looking at this is to compare taxable sales to total economic activity. Even as the economy has grown, the amount of taxable sales has continued to shrink (see chart.) In 2002, a dollar of gross state product generated 6 cents of taxable sales. That amount fell to 5 cents in 2008 and was down to just over 4 cents by 2015 (most recent data.) This is clearly an unsustainable path. Since cities in Texas also rely heavily on sales taxes, they are facing the same situation. Local conditions may differ and some cities have healthier economies than others, but the trend will be the same.

Texas taxable sales per dollar of state GDP

A changing economy means less sales tax revenue even with growth.

With growth, there is more demand for services: schools, police and fire being the largest categories for local governments. But the available resources are not keeping up. If the circumstances get bad enough, a future Legislature will face pressure to broader the sales tax base to cover more services. As a fiscally conservative state, however, cities, towns and the state government in Texas will likely choose to cut spending rather than seek new revenue sources.

This makes it critical for local leaders to focus on how to make their communities more sustainable through their development policies, land-use patterns, regulations and municipal operations.

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