Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Republican officials vowed Tuesday to freeze property tax revenue in any city that defunds law enforcement.
The group unveiled the plan after the city of Austin voted last week to cut police funding by one third to invest in social services. The proposal would be taken up when Texas lawmakers meet again in 2021, though its success will likely hinge on the upcoming election, as Democrats seek to seize control of the Republican-led state House.
“Cities that endanger residents by reducing law enforcement should not then be able to turn around and go back and get more property tax dollars from those same residents,” the GOP governor and former Texas attorney general said at a press conference in Fort Worth.
Calls to “defund the police” have received fresh attention after weeks of protest over police brutality and racial injustice in cities across the nation, including Dallas, in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
The city of Dallas has not yet taken that step. A budget that City Manager T.C. Broadnax proposed earlier this month does not defund the police, despite a signal from most city council members they were open to such a move.
It’s not clear what effect the newly announced proposal might have on the city’s decision.
Abbott’s office did not respond to questions, such as how the legislation would cap cities’ tax revenue, what would qualify as “defunding the police” and when, if ever, the freeze in taxes would lift. It remains to be seen whether the proposal would also block funding cuts for state law enforcement agencies, such as the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The move marks the latest salvo in a bruising battle over local control that has raged in recent sessions at the Capitol. Last year, the Legislature lowered the cap on how much more money local governments can raise from property taxes each year without facing a rate-rollback election.
Several House Democrats criticized the issue as an example of overreach.
“The answer to Republican leadership’s completely over the top, unconstitutional ‘proposal’ is simple: No. It is a non-starter.,” state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, wrote on Twitter. “This is about insipid State overreach into Texans’ right to local government.”
State Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat who chairs the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, said Abbott is wielding “his heavy hand of government once again.”
“How much leeway will a city have left when crafting their own budget?” she tweeted.
Still, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick pledged to make the legislation a priority in the state Senate and said he hopes it will roll back the steps taken by Austin. In addition to recent funding cuts, Patrick lamented that the city has “taken away vital weapons that they could use to disperse crowds.” The Austin police chief in June banned the use of beanbag rounds for crowd control purposes after several people were critically injured.
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who is not running for reelection, said the chamber will “100% support this legislation.” Neither Bonnen nor Patrick responded to questions about the proposal’s specifics.
Policing reform is already poised to be a top issue next session. The Texas Legislative Black Caucus unveiled a proposal last week that would ban chokeholds statewide and narrow use-of-force rules for police officers. The bill is named after Floyd, a Houston native who was killed in Minneapolis Police Department custody in May after a veteran officer, Derek Chauvin, knelt on his neck.
Abbott said the state needs to “provide law enforcement with the training, the tools and the strategies they need to prevent a replication of a George Floyd type situation in the future.”
The state should evaluate some use of force strategies, he said, without naming any in particular. Defunding law enforcement is “never the answer,” Abbott said.
Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said he wants to see the actual legislation before commenting on the plan because “‘defunding’ means different things to different people.”
“People need safety and stability to thrive. To that end, it’s imperative for us to invest in a highly trained and well-led police department that emphasizes community policing,” he said in a written statement. “I am also committed to exploring policies that reduce our dependence on police officers to solve society’s ills.”
Broadnax’s budget attempts to strike a balance by keeping the police department whole while also investing in other programs that aim to improve the lives of residents.
The city is currently hosting dozens of virtual town halls on the budget. And council members are expected to submit dozens of amendments before the budget is finalized.
Activists in Dallas leading the movement have argued that policing does not reduce crime. They want the millions of tax dollars that go to the police to be redirected to community programs that would boost traditionally underserved communities made up of mostly Black and Latino families.
In Fort Worth, where the press conference was held, residents recently voted to renew the police department’s special sales tax that covers personnel, equipment and vehicles.
Mayor Betsy Price said she understands “concerns in the community of relationships with our police department.” City officials are working to address it, but will not defund police to solve those issues, she said.
Last year, a Fort Worth police officer fatally shot 28-year-old Atatiana Jefferson in her home. The officer, Aaron Dean, resigned and has since been indicted on a murder charge.
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