Texas Senate backs penalizing cities that cut police spending

The bill’s sponsor said it was intended to promote public safety and show support for law enforcement

Chuck Lindell
Austin American-Statesman

Gaining stronger than expected Democratic support, the Texas Senate has approved a Republican priority bill that would penalize cities and counties that cut spending on police.

Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said Tuesday that her bill was intended to promote public safety and show support for law enforcement amid calls to defund police during last year’s protests over police brutality after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis officer in May.

Several Democrats called it a political ploy designed to appeal to voters while accomplishing little to nothing to change local spending priorities in Texas.

Senate Bill 23 would require cities and counties to get voter approval before cutting police budgets year to year.

Under the bill, a citizen complaint would launch an inquiry by the Criminal Justice Division of the governor’s office to determine if local officials cut police spending without holding the required election.

If the complaint was validated and local officials declined to restore the spending, the matter would be referred to the state comptroller, who could impose a penalty that prohibits the city or county from raising property tax rates until the spending is restored.

After local officials raised concerns, SB 23 was changed to add several exceptions, allowing police budget cuts if there was a recession, natural disaster or a population decline.

For smaller departments, one-time spending bumps to buy a police car or other big-ticket items also would not count in the year-to-year budget comparison, Huffman said.

Gov. Greg Abbott made preserving police budgets an emergency item this session, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick designated SB 23 as a priority bill.

“The Texas Senate and I remain committed to supporting our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line when they leave their homes every single day, and I appreciate Sen. Huffman’s continued leadership on this important issue,” Patrick said after the vote.

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, praised Huffman for adding exceptions to help cities cope with the bill’s requirements. “But as a consequence, it doesn’t do a whole lot because cities aren’t reducing their budgets,” he said.

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he opposed the bill as a political ploy but urged other Democrats to follow his lead by voting for it Tuesday. The “defund police” issue polled well and was likely the reason Democrats did so poorly in Texas House and congressional races in November, he said.

Whitmire also accused supporters of hypocrisy, saying the Legislature implemented 4% agency budget cuts in 2017 that led the Department of Public Safety to cut 130 trooper positions.

“If the Democrats in Washington attempted to do that to us, the majority of this body would be screaming,” he said.

Huffman rejected the characterization.

“The intent of this bill is to support law enforcement. Please vote no if you think it was a political ploy. I don’t want your vote.”

Several Republicans came to Huffman’s defense, saying the bill was inspired by the Austin City Council’s decision last year to cut police spending. Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said the cuts reduced safety in the city and prompted Capitol testimony from some Austin residents who said they no longer feel safe in the city.

SB 23 passed 28-2 and will next go to the Texas House.

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