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Better cut your police budget now while you still can

That’s one possible takeaway from this.

The Texas House on Friday passed a bill to financially penalize the state’s largest cities if they cut their police budgets. The measure was sent to the Senate after two days of heated debate and emotional speeches, with the bill authors calling to “back the blue” and the opposition decrying the bill as political propaganda.

House Bill 1900 comes after a year of civil rights advocates calling on cities to reduce what they spend on policing and to reform police behavior. Those calls were spurred by high-profile deaths at the hands of police like George Floyd’s in Minneapolis and Mike Ramos’ in Austin.

Among Texas’ largest cities, only Austin cut its law enforcement funding last year, though almost all of that decrease came from an accounting shift of money that still allows traditional police duties to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. Still, the city’s response to some activists’ calls to “defund the police” prompted harsh and immediate backlash from Republican state leaders, who have pointed to fast-rising homicide rates throughout the state and country as a reason to maintain police funding levels.

Gov. Greg Abbott became laser-focused on Austin’s budget and “backing the blue,” making legislation to punish cities that decrease police funding one of his emergency items this year.

After initial passage Thursday, HB 1900 was finally approved on a 90-49 vote Friday and sent to the upper chamber. The Senate’s related bill, which would require an election before cities could decrease police funding, passed out of the upper chamber last month. It’s unclear how either chamber will react to their counterpart’s proposal.

HB 1900 was authored by Republican state Reps. Craig Goldman, Will Metcalf, Greg Bonnen and Angie Chen Button and Democrat Richard Peña Raymond. If a city with more than 250,000 residents was determined by the governor’s office to have cut police funding, the bill would allow the state to appropriate part of a city’s sales taxes and use that money to pay expenses for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Such cities would also be banned from increasing property taxes or utility rates, which could have been used to compensate for the reapportioned sales taxes.

The bill does allow cities to cut police department budgets if such a decrease is proportionally equal to an overall city budget decrease. Cities can also get approval to cut police budgets if expenses for one year were higher because of capital expenditures or disaster response. The bill would also let neighborhoods annexed in the last 30 years to vote to deannex themselves from a city that has decreased funding to its police department.

[…]

Several other Democrats offered amendments Thursday to add exceptions for when a city could cut police department funding. State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio offered leniency so city council members wouldn’t opt against a necessary increase in police funding for fear they could not turn it back the next year. And state Rep. Jarvis Johnson of Houston filed multiple amendments, including one to not punish cities for cutting civilian positions within law enforcement agencies. He said the Houston Police Department has more than 1,200 civilian jobs, including janitors and other positions he listed off.

“At any given time that Houston Police Department decides we no longer need a car attendant, we no longer need a car attendant supervisor, we no longer need a truck driver, we no longer need a typist, that does not mean that the city of Houston has decided to defund the police,” he said.

The amendments failed, as the Democrats denounced what they called partisan rhetoric and a move for state control over large cities.

On Friday, state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat, offered up amendments to first eliminate the 250,000 population cap which Democrats argued only punished larger, more liberal cities. When that failed, he attempted to set the population cap at 50,000, then 200,000. Both amendments failed. His argument that the 250,000 limit was an arbitrary number and goes against the legislative intent of public safety for all Texans could buttress potential legal challenges if the bill is signed into law.

“If we’re true to our word to say why we are doing this … then we should accept this amendment to apply to all 30 million Texans,” he said.

Well, the real reason they’re doing this is because Greg Abbott was mad at Austin, but it’s not polite to bring that up. And not having a significant minimum population requirement means the law might have to apply to places that Republicans represent (*), and we can’t have that. So here we are. By the way, law enforcement agencies from the cities that this bill targets opposed it, and got the same result they got in opposing permitless carry. We have a strange definition of “backing the blue”, it seems.

Anyway. My suggestion in the title is not original to me, I got it from Grits for Breakfast post.

The Legislature gets to write the laws, but even they are not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences. I don’t think legislators have considered the incentives they’re putting in place in HB 1900 punishing cities that “defund” police department (by which in Austin’s case they mean delaying cadet classes by one year). Going forward, cities that increase police spending can never again lower it. But they often need to do so. Now, cities will decline to spend more, knowing they won’t be allowed to spend less. Bill authors even rejected amendments so that overtime for one-off special events – like a Super Bowl weekend in Houston – would be counted against them the following year. If I’m right about the new incentives facing city councils under this legislation, the result will be to suppress police spending instead of bolster it. I predict that if HB 1900 becomes law, when we look back five years from now the growth rate in police budgets will have flattened, not rallied.

Indeed, the most delicious irony may well come if HB 1900 ends up itself defunding the police!

Note that this is the same logic that led to Harris County Commissioner’s Court proposing a property tax rate increase in 2019 as a way to hedge against the revenue cap law that the Lege passed that year, which would essentially prevent them from ever raising rates in the future regardless of situation or need. (This was only defeated because of an anti-majoritarian quirk in the law that allowed a minority of Commissioners to prevent the vote by breaking quorum.) I don’t actually think any city will take this action for the simple reason that it turns the heat on them in an uncomfortable way, but the incentive is there. I do think Grits is correct that the future effect will be to introduce extreme reluctance to approve any increase in police budgets, because it’s a one-way ratchet that can only have negative effects elsewhere. Indeed, it’s likely just a matter of time before city controllers and city managers start releasing five-year budget projections that warn of various consequences from this bill. Among other things – and I expect this is why the big city police departments opposed this – this will put downward pressure on wages and benefits for police officers, as well as a strong disincentive to approve overtime. Cities are going to do what they need to do. If you don’t like it, go yell at Greg Abbott.

(*) – Technically not true, though the large majority of State Reps from the cities this will apply to are Democrats. That may change in the near future, as places outside the big urban counties like Frisco, Grand Prairie, and McKinney become covered by HB1900. Maybe that will make their Republican representatives more receptive to the idea of modifying or repealing that law in the future, or maybe these cities will follow in the footsteps of places like Garland and Irving and just become Democratic cities themselves. The list on unintended consequences here could wind up being very long indeed.

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3 Comments

  1. BillK says:

    Wouldn’t a city be able to just work around this. Just let inflation take care of budget not increasing the budget, don’t hire replacement officers when older police retire, hire social workers to handle mental health cases, domestic cased and give them a badge and call them police officers.

  2. Frederick says:

    BillK,

    May be we could just take the standard Republican refrain and just get rid of the police altogether and let the free market just do its magic?

  3. Jason Hochman says:

    Why would you cut your police budget in the middle of murder-demic? When you get murdered, there is no cure and no vaccine.

    Houston also needs help to police the police. The Turner regime has yet to do anything about the murder of the Tuttle household more than two years ago. They need to send Turner on a fact finding mission to Mini Annapolis, so that he can see how it’s done. They fired Chauvin the next day, convicted him in less than one year, and he’ll probably get executed in a few months. The Tuttle killers got to retire and get their pensions, under the Turner regime.