Gov. Greg Abbott, Other Texas Leaders Want To Freeze Property Tax Revenues For Cities That Cut Police Budgets

The state's three top elected leaders also fiercely criticized the Austin officials who cut one-third of their police department's budget last week.

By Juan Pablo Garnham and Jolie Mccullough

Gov. Greg Abbott and top Texas leaders announced Tuesday that they will push for legislation next year that would freeze property tax revenues for cities that cut police budgets on Tuesday, just days after the Austin City Council approved a budget that will cut police funding by one-third and reinvest money in social services.

The proposal sets up what is expected to be a fight in the 2021 Texas Legislature over what police reform should look like following the in-custody death of George Floyd that reignited a national movement against police brutality and racial injustice.

“Any city in the state of Texas that defunds law enforcement will have their property tax revenue frozen as of that time,” Abbott said in Fort Worth, where the press conference was held. “This will be an effective tool that effectively will prevent cities from being able to reduce funding support for law enforcement agencies.”

Texas’ four largest cities — Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio — each spent more than a third of their general funds on their police departments in their respective 2020 fiscal years. But on Thursday, Austin decided to cut its police department budget by $150 million, after officers and the city’s top cop faced months of criticism over the killing of an unarmed Black and Hispanic manthe use of force against anti-police brutality protesters and the investigation of a demonstrator’s fatal shooting by another citizen.

“If we have police brutality, we don’t need fewer police, we need less police brutality, and so we need to take action, whether it be as a Legislature or in police departments or whatever the case may be,” Abbott said. “We do need to take action to ensure that law enforcement officers are trained in ways in which they will not engage in police brutality.”

The death of Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police officers during an arrest, has spurred protests against police brutality and calls to reduce police funding across the state and country. Police reform advocates are pushing cities to reallocate police funds to areas like housing, social services, and public spaces. Austin was the first major Texas city to cut its police department’s budget.

Last week, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus unveiled provisions they plan to include in a George Floyd Act when the legislative session begins in January. The proposals included some related directly to Floyd, like banning chokeholds and requiring officers to intervene if another officer is using excessive force. But it also revived efforts that have previously failed at the Capitol after facing opposition from police unions. One such measure would be to end arrests for criminal violations that at most would result in a fine, like theft under $100.

While Abbott has mentioned potential proposals following Floyd’s death, they have mostly fallen in line with what police unions also support. He repeatedly spoke of increased training for officers Tuesday, but the item Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said would be a priority in the Senate is to ensure police funding is not diminished.

Abbott was joined in the press conference by Patrick, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, several Republican North Texas lawmakers, and Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. During the press conference, Abbott made a reference to a report from The Wall Street Journal that showed increases in homicides and robberies in Austin this year. But experts have pointed out that crime rates are nowhere near the high levels of two decades ago. An analysis of the University of Pennsylvania shows a marginal increase in violent crimes compared to the previous five years in Austin.

Bonnen, who is not returning to the legislature in 2021, criticized Austin Mayor Steve Adler for opposing police funding cuts in previous years during property tax debates, only to support it now.

“It is not acceptable,” Bonnen said. “Law enforcement is not a tool of political agendas and I would ask the city of Austin to stop using them as one.”

Austin City Council member Greg Casar said in a statement that Abbott recently requests a 4% budget cut to the Texas Department of Public Safety as the state faces budget shortfalls during the COVID-19 recession.

“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.

San Antonio’s proposed budget for 2021 increases overall police funding by $8 million but cuts overtime and funds health and violence prevention programs. In Dallas, the proposed 2021 budget includes a minor increase in police funding and $3.2 million for safety net resources. Both cities are scheduled to approve their budgets in September.

The Houston City Council approved a minor funding increase to its police department in June, but an amendment that tried to redistribute some of the money to other areas, like the police oversight board and loans for businesses owned by Black and brown people, was rejected.

In Fort Worth, where Abbott’s press conference was held, voters supported renewing the half-cent sales tax that funds at least 24% of the city police department’s budget in July. According to the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, the city is considering a proposal to redirect some funds within their Police Department to expand their mental health team, increase funding to nonprofits, and creating a civilian response program.

Abbott said Tuesday’s press conference was held in Fort Worth because “Fort Worth is doing it right” in terms of investing in police and public safety. While Abbott mentioned Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, there was no mention during the conference of Atatiana Jefferson or other high-profile Texas police killings of Black residents. Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, was killed last year after a Fort Worth police officer shot into her home during a welfare check. The former officer, Aaron Dean, has been indicted on a murder charge.

Advocates have argued that while police departments receive a large portion of city funds, safety net programs remain underfunded and Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by unemployment, lack of adequate housing, and poverty. In 2018, 19.6% of Black Texans lived below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with 20.9% of Hispanic Texans and 8.5% of non-Hispanic white Texans.

“The only way that you’re going to prevent crime is by addressing the root causes of crime, and the main one is poverty,” said Nora Soto, co-founder of Our City Our Future in Dallas. “Police have acted as a poverty patrol. They’re criminalizing poor people.”

Police unions explain that law enforcement is expensive and involves a wide range of responsibilities, which include everything from responding to potentially dangerous emergency 911 calls to attending monthly neighborhood meetings.

“Just because of the sheer volume of tasks that we are responsible for dealing with, public safety is going to be the most expensive part of a city budget across the board. That’s really just demand,” said Jennifer Szimanski, public affairs coordinator for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.

This story originally published by the Texas Tribune.


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