Governor Greg Abbott has spent much of the past six months defusing the police and making sure every other Texan is focused on it too.
On Twitter and in televised press conferences, the Republican has spoken out against the city of Austin’s efforts to reduce and restructure police spending, and urged lawmakers to draft a law so burdensome no city or municipality would dare cut the budget of the local law enforcement agencies again.
“We will not allow cities in Texas to follow the lead of cities like Portland, Seattle and Minneapolis by defusing the police,” he said in his annual statewide address this month. “That’s crazy.”
But while Abbott has delivered a lot of rhetorical kindling, lawmakers have yet to work on one of their policy regulations, and the way forward could be a slog. The governor’s proposals are largely untested, vaguely defined, and are sure to face fierce opposition from city leaders and residents who fear being inadvertently harmed by a law whose sole alleged goal is Austin.
“This punishment for releasing the police is a far better political problem than implementation,” said Cal Jillson, professor of political science at Southern Methodist University. “Once you have to do it in the end, it’s kind of messy.”
The saga began in August when the Austin City Council cut 5 percent of its police budget after the murder of local police and amid national unrest over the death of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police force. They also promised to move tens of millions of dollars’ worth of traditional police functions to other city authorities.
Abbott has urged lawmakers to consider a number of retaliatory measures against cities like Austin, including disenfranchising abusive cities, withholding sales tax receipts, and taking over entire police departments.
All sanctions seems unprecedented, although the legislature has broad legal authority over local officials and in theory can impose almost any condition it wants. However, state laws cannot target individual municipalities. The legislation must either apply everywhere or to a broad group, which may change over time, as determined by the state’s highest court.
“The question is, can an artful draftsman draft a bill that is specific to Austin and fits that Supreme Court definition,” said Randall Erben, former Abbott Legislative Director and Associate Professor at the University of Texas, Austin School of Law .
Concerns about city bills
Few major cities outside of Austin and Dallas even talked about cutting their police budgets last year, and Houston increased police funding slightly. Many smaller cities are run by Republicans who have political ties to the governor. However, they could continue to be affected by such measures if their budgets were to decline for a number of reasons – such as a population decline or the end of debt payments on a bond. Some cities might buy a new police cruiser one year and not the next.
These scenarios are likely to worsen in the coming years as cities work to break free from the financial burden of the coronavirus pandemic. And it did so after Abbott made a successful push to cap local property tax revenues at the previous session, which may put pressure on local government budgets, which are mostly about public safety spending.
“Members of the legislature are pressured by their people back home and say, ‘You know, this opens a whole Pandora’s box,” said Sherri Greenberg, a former state official who teaches politics at UT Austin there are still ways and various ways, if not exactly, to withhold sales tax in order to do other things legally. “
Three Republicans have so far passed defunding laws in the House, but none of the measures would impose sanctions on cities. One calls for a local election if the cut is more than 5 percent, and the other only puts a limit on how much police spending can fall year after year.
A spokesman for House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said he expected more bills on the matter to be filed before the March 12 filing deadline. Phelan, Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are “in lock step” against the depreciation of the police, the spokesman said.
“Every community has different approaches to public safety, and the committee process will be a place for review and discussion on how our state is doing,” said Phelan’s spokesman.
A spokeswoman for Patrick did not respond to a request for comment. Abbott’s spokeswoman did not answer questions posed by email, but said in a statement that the governor “is working with lawmakers on the right approach”.
Winner edition for GOP
The focus on defusing the police, meanwhile, may overshadow what the Democrats had hoped to be a legislative session partly devoted to criminal justice reforms after Floyd’s death that was videotaped and sparked national protests. Phelan has made overtures into reform in the past and has endorsed his offering for speakers from many of the same progressives who are now driving those changes.
It’s not just in Texas. While many political leaders called for more creative approaches to law enforcement after Floyd’s death, top Democrats have been cautious about funding the effort. In a conversation with the civil rights leaders in December, President Joe Biden allegedly blamed the move for voting losses in November.
The Texas Municipal League, which represents the city of Austin, has not taken a public position to show how extensive defunding legislation could be. The group also represents the Texas Police Chiefs Association.
A city spokesman for Austin declined to say whether the city would consider litigation as Abbott’s proposals advance, but said the city believes in law enforcement support and the types of social services that can help prevent the occurrence of Prevent crime.
“Without the ability to manage our own local budgets, the city cannot do these things effectively,” he said.
Even if none of Abbott’s ideas become law, the payoff may already have come. His press conferences and Twitter storms denouncing Austin helped Republicans recover from major races in the House of Representatives last fall and detracted from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that killed more than 40,000 Texans. The public health crisis had hurt the governor’s approval ratings.
“I think he’s already won,” said Jillson. “He has already made his point of view clear. If he can charge Austin, his base will love it. “