Cop cuts may cost tax funds for cities

Austin move draws threat from Ab­bott, Pa­trick and Bon­nen

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - By Taylor Gold­en­stein STAFF WRITER

Prop­erty tax rev­enue would be on the line for cities that choose to de­fund their po­lice de­part­ments un­der a new leg­isla­tive pro­posal pitched Tues­day by Gov. Greg Ab­bott, Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick and House Speaker Den­nis Bon­nen.

“Any city that de­funds po­lice de­part­ments will have its prop­erty tax rev­enue frozen at the cur­rent level,” Ab­bott said, flanked by the other two Repub­li­can mem­bers of the “Big Three” in Texas state gov­ern­ment. “They will never be able to in­crease prop­erty tax rev­enue again if they de­fund po­lice.”

The pro­posal comes after the city of Austin last week unan­i­mously voted to cut at least $20 mil­lion from the city’s po­lice bud­get and ear­marked an ad­di­tional $130 mil­lion to be re­al­lo­cated to other ar­eas. The Austin Po­lice Depart­ment, with over 2,600 sworn law en­force­ment and sup­port per­son­nel, has had an an­nual bud­get of more than $400 mil­lion for the past two years.

De­fund­ing po­lice has been one of the pri­mary de­mands of pro­test­ers who have taken to the streets in the weeks fol­low­ing the death of Ge­orge Floyd, a 46-yearold Black man and former Hous­ton res­i­dent who died after a white Min­neapo­lis of­fi­cer pinned his neck to the ground with a knee for more than eight min­utes dur­ing an ar­rest. Ac­tivists have pro­posed us­ing that fund­ing on so­cial ser­vices, such as men­tal health and hous­ing as­sis­tance.

Austin crit­i­cized

The move by the Democrat­con­trolled Austin City Coun­cil was heav­ily crit­i­cized by Texas Repub­li­cans, in­clud­ing Ab­bott who in a state­ment last week said the city had aban­doned its duty to pro­vide pub­lic safety in fa­vor of a po­lit­i­cal agenda.

“What they have done in Austin should never hap­pen in any city in the state, and we’re go­ing to pass leg­is­la­tion to be sure it never hap­pens again,” Pa­trick said.

Austin City Coun­cil mem­ber Greg Casar said the coun­cil’s in­tent was to lessen the bur­den on po­lice to han­dle so­cial is­sues, such as home­less­ness, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and men­tal health, and spread it out to other de­part­ments with more band­with.

“The mes­sage from the tens of thou­sands of Aus­tinites who made their voices heard in this year’s bud­get process was clear:

We must de­crease our over-reliance on po­lice to han­dle all of our com­plex pub­lic safety chal­lenges and in­stead rein­vest in do­mes­tic vi­o­lence shel­ters, men­tal health first re­spon­ders, and more,” Casar said in a state­ment. “That’s what our City Coun­cil did — and it’s ex­actly the work we’re com­mit­ted to con­tinue.”

It’s un­clear how the leg­is­la­tion will de­fine de­fund­ing po­lice; Ab­bott and Pa­trick did not re­spond to ques­tions re­quest­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion. In Austin’s case, the funds will stay within city cof­fers but will ad­dress dif­fer­ent needs — some will be used to move civil­ian func­tions out of the po­lice depart­ment and into other city de­part­ments and some will be redi­rected to al­ter­na­tive forms of pub­lic safety.

Bon­nen told Hearst News­pa­pers that the pro­posed leg­is­la­tion is in­tended to tar­get any kind of po­lice bud­get re­duc­tion.

“All lo­cal gov­ern­ments that cut or shift fund­ing from their po­lice de­part­ments will be pro­hib­ited from rais­ing prop­erty taxes,” Bon­nen said in an email. “This pro­posal will dis­in­cen­tivize cities like Austin from com­pro­mis­ing the safety of res­i­dents and stop them from us­ing our law en­force­ment as a po­lit­i­cal prop.”

Ac­tivists in San An­to­nio and Hous­ton had pushed for sim­i­lar cuts to po­lice bud­gets, with lit­tle suc­cess.

Cuts ‘hyp­o­crit­i­cal’

In San An­to­nio, the city coun­cil has pro­posed an $8 mil­lion in­crease to the po­lice bud­get, but also moved some do­mes­tic vi­o­lence preven­tion em­ploy­ees from the po­lice depart­ment to the city health depart­ment, cut po­lice over­time by about $3 mil­lion and added about $1 mil­lion in new spend­ing on home­less­ness and men­tal health out­reach.

Sim­i­larly, the Hous­ton City Coun­cil in June voted to up its po­lice bud­get by about $20 mil­lion, re­ject­ing an ef­fort to re­di­rect $12 mil­lion to po­lice re­form ef­forts and other mea­sures, such as giv­ing the po­lice over­sight board in­ves­tiga­tive pow­ers and of­fer­ing no-in­ter­est loans to mi­nor­ity-owned busi­nesses.

Nev­er­the­less, the pro­posal sets the stage for a reprise of yet an­other clash be­tween the Repub­li­can-ma­jor­ity leg­is­la­ture and Demo­cratic-led cities over lo­cal con­trol, a de­bate over how much in­ter­ven­tion is ap­pro­pri­ate for the state to have in city and county mat­ters.

In 2019, Repub­li­cans passed pri­or­ity leg­is­la­tion, Se­nate Bill 2, which re­quires many cities, coun­ties and other tax­ing en­ti­ties to hold an elec­tion if they want to raise 3.5 per­cent more prop­erty tax rev­enue than the pre­vi­ous year, de­spite heavy op­po­si­tion from cities.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler in a news con­fer­ence Tues­day said he dis­agrees with the no­tion that the city “de­funded” its po­lice. While Adler said it’s too soon to say how much sup­port the pro­posal will have be­fore the makeup of the 87th Leg­is­la­ture is known — Democrats are vy­ing to gain con­trol of the Texas House in the 2020 elec­tion — he hopes it does not come to pass.

“Any kind of cap that’s im­posed from the state level on lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties is a prob­lem,” Adler said. “I think it takes away fun­da­men­tal and ba­sic free­dom rights from lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties to be able to de­cide what their pri­or­i­ties are.”

Casar char­ac­ter­ized the pro­posal as hyp­o­crit­i­cal con­sid­er­ing the Big Three’s re­cent ask that state agencies, in­clud­ing DPS, make a 5 per­cent cut to their bud­gets to make up for short­falls caused by the pan­demic and in the pre­vi­ous bud­get cy­cle, a 4per­cent cut to ad­dress the down­turn in the oil and gas in­dus­try.

The 5 per­cent cuts pro­posed this year would strip more than $3.5 mil­lion from law en­force­ment op­er­a­tions within sev­eral state agencies, in­clud­ing the Depart­ment of Crim­i­nal Jus­tice, the Of­fice of the At­tor­ney Gen­eral and the Al­co­holic Bev­er­age Com­mis­sion, ac­cord­ing to bud­get doc­u­ments ob­tained by Hearst News­pa­pers. The agencies as­sist lo­cal po­lice de­part­ments in in­ves­ti­gat­ing cy­ber­crimes, human traf­fick­ing, mon­i­tor­ing parolees and en­forc­ing al­co­hol reg­u­la­tions, among other tasks.

Threat called ‘non­sen­si­cal’

Ab­bott, Pa­trick and Bon­nen on Tues­day were joined by mem­bers of Tar­rant County’s Repub­li­can del­e­ga­tion, in­clud­ing state Sens. Jane Nelson and Kelly Han­cock. Ab­bott con­trasted the city of Austin with Fort Worth, where vot­ers re­cently ap­proved keep­ing around a half-cent sales tax for an­other decade that will fund the city’s po­lice depart­ment.

“I join those who are call­ing for fund­ing for men­tal health and rape cri­sis cen­ters and do­mes­tic vi­o­lence shel­ters,” said Nelson, who chairs the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee and for­merly chaired the Health and Human Ser­vices Com­mit­tee for 14 years. “We are, as a state, mak­ing huge in­vest­ments in those items in our state bud­get and will con­tinue to do that, but you don’t have to de­fund law en­force­ment to ac­com­plish those ob­jec­tives.”

State Rep. Trey Martinez-Fis­cher, D-San An­to­nio, who sits on the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, which de­cides tax pol­icy for the state, called the pro­posal “non­sen­si­cal” through any other lens than a po­lit­i­cal one. Martinez-Fis­cher added that he finds it “most strik­ing” that Repub­li­cans who re­jected an amend­ment to SB2 last year that would have ex­empted po­lice and fire bud­gets sup­ported this pro­posal.

“There was at­tempt after at­tempt by Democrats to ex­clude any tax lim­i­ta­tions on po­lice and fire and every sin­gle one of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives that were grand­stand­ing in Fort Worth voted against it,” he said. “It just takes a cer­tain amount of hubris to come here and blame Democrats for not be­ing with po­lice and fire when these are the guys who voted against their bud­gets when were were ask­ing them to hold them harm­less.”

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