(Charlie L. Harper III/Austonia)

Legislation that would hamstring cities' abilities to raise property taxes if they cut police budgets will be a "priority" when Texas lawmakers meet for their regular session early next year, state leaders said Tuesday.


Among the first cities to be affected would be Austin, where the Austin City Council voted last week to cut part of the police budget—earning Mayor Steve Adler and the rest of the council sharp and targeted criticism from the state's conservative leaders.

"They will never be able to increase property-tax revenue again if they defund police," Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference Tuesday in Fort Worth.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen agreed that their chambers would support such a bill.

"We will be ready in the Senate to work on this legislation and make it a priority," Patrick said. "When I think about what Austin has done, had any other mayor of any other city in the state been as irresponsible as they had been, they would have chaos and their city would be in danger."

Bonnen promised 100% support from the House, although he is not returning for the session after announcing last fall that he would not seek re-election. A new House Speaker will be elected on the first day of the session in January 2021.

Legislation will not be filed until after the November election. Abbott and the others were not clear on how the legislation would define "defund"—whether it would be a percentage limit on reduction of budget or a requirement to increase funding by a certain amount, or another approach.

Adler said cities should be able to "decide their own priorities" and that state action to limit that is "a problem."

"I think the press conference was mostly about trying to make us afraid and scared, and my concern is that we're going to see more of that," Adler said. "The kind of cap that is imposed at the state level on the local community is a problem. It takes away fundamental and basic freedoms and rights from local communities to be able to decide what their priorities are."

Council action

The Austin Police Department is still funded, but the Austin City Council voted on Thursday to move $150 million out of the $440M police budget over the next six months, including $20 million immediately that would have filled 150 currently vacant officer spots in the department.

The remaining $130 million will be negotiated with input from the community, including law enforcement and victims advocate groups, concerning where to best reappropriate the remaining funds for functions such as fighting domestic violence and responding to mental health crises. In total the cuts will amount to roughly one-third of the current 2019-20 police budget.

Thursday's action did not remove active-duty officers from the street, but it will eliminate positions that may have been filled later.

Spike in homicides

In his argument against the city council's actions, Abbott cited recent crime statistics showing a spike in the number of homicides in the first half of this year compared to last year, pointing to national headlines showing Austin had the largest increase of any city in the country.

Percentage-wise, that was true for January through June—a 64% increase translating to nine more homicides in the first half of the year.

In comparison, Chicago saw a smaller percentage increase from last year but still has recorded more than 320 homicides this year. In 2020, Austin police had responded to 29 homicides by July 31.

In spite of the increase, Austin still had the second lowest murder rate of any large city in the country, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

Austin council responds

Adler said the council action was in response to "thousands of Austinites (who) marched in the streets demanding justice and action" during Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Michael Ramos at the hands of officers.

"The status quo and the past are no longer good enough," Adler said. "This is the inflection point and we all have a decision to make as to which side of history we choose to be on."

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, chairman of the council's committee on public safety, pointed to a move by Abbott three years ago to cut funding for the Texas Department of Public Safety by 4 percent.

"I'm disappointed that the governor chooses this extreme political rhetoric at a time when we are implementing the most fiscally responsible reform movement in municipal history, to go through the largest bureaucracy in the general fund, line by line, and making sure taxpayers are getting the most for their investment," Flannigan said.

Some members of the Austin City Council fired back on social media, defending their decision.


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