If Texas cities cut police budgets, they'll lose annexation powers, governor proposes

By Tessa Weinberg

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

AUSTIN, Texas — In his latest move to discourage cities from cutting funds from their police forces, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday a proposal that would strip localities of their annexation powers.

Under the proposed legislation, if cities cut funding for their police departments, they will “forever lose” their annexation powers, and any areas and residents that have been annexed in the past will have the ability to vote to undo the move, Abbott said.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott discusses the state's coronavirus response during a press conference in Austin on March 29, 2020. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott discusses the state’s coronavirus response during a press conference in Austin on March 29, 2020. (Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)

The announcement follows a similar proposal state leaders unveiled last month that would freeze Texas cities’ property tax revenue if they defund their police forces. Last month’s proposal came just a week after the Austin City Council unanimously voted to redirect roughly $150 million from the city’s police department — with about $20 million to be immediately removed.

Both measures, will make it “financially impossible to defund law enforcement and it should leave Austin with no choice but to restore the cuts that they’ve already made to law enforcement,” Abbott said during a press conference Thursday, flanked by law enforcement at the Austin Police Association’s headquarters.

It’s unclear what exactly falls under the scope of the term “defund,” and Abbott said lawmakers would “go through all those nuanced details” when they reconvene for the upcoming legislative session in January.

When asked if removing funds for police for any reason would fall under the term, Abbott said he defines defunding as “exactly” what the Austin City Council voted for, and the Dallas City Council’s indication it would support a $7 million reduction in the overtime budget of the Dallas Police Department.

While other cities mull slashing their police forces’ budgets, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price has vowed not to cut funding to the Fort Worth Police Department to tackle issues related to public safety.

In July, Fort Worth voters renewed a half-cent sales tax, known as the Crime Control and Prevention District, for the next decade that helps fund equipment, neighborhood patrol officers and more for the Fort Worth Police Department.

When asked if “defunding” encompasses voters passing measures that would cut funding to law enforcement, Abbott said “that’s a hypothetical that has never existed.”

Joined by Attorney General Ken Paxton and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Abbott and police officers also signed a pledge vowing to oppose efforts to divert funds from Texas’ police departments.

Abbott unveiled the pledge in a video Wednesday. Hours after he called on candidates from both parties to sign it to show their support and “back the blue,” dozens of state lawmakers shared photos on social media of their signed pledges.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday challenged politicians to sign the pledge Thursday and said that those who don’t will be putting their “weak leadership” on display.

Ahead of Abbott’s press conference, Texas Democrats countered with pledges of their own.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus put out “The Texas Promise” for state representatives to share, which notes that they “do not support defunding the police” but “support efforts to reform and eradicate systemic racism in the criminal justice system that has failed Sandra Bland, Botham Jean and so many others.”

Similarly, the Texas Democratic Party also released a pledge of its own, and called on Abbott, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Texas Republicans to sign the “Texas First Pledge” to “put an end to the political [BS] and put Texans first.”

The pledge included points like following the recommendations of scientists and experts when responding to the pandemic, condemning racism and more.

“Texans will always call a spade a spade when they see it. No political stunt by Greg Abbott will get Texans to forget the nearly 14,000 lives lost to COVID-19 on his watch and thousands of our loved ones fighting for their lives in hospital beds across our state,” Manny Garcia, the Texas Democratic Party’s executive director, said in a statement Thursday ahead of Abbott’s press conference.

Some Tarrant County lawmakers, who had flanked Abbott at a press conference last month in Fort Worth when he unveiled the proposal that would freeze cities’ property tax revenue, already shared their support Wednesday for Abbott’s pledge, including Republican Reps. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Craig Goldman of Fort Worth and Sen. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound.

But Abbott’s call also drew criticism, with Rep. Chris Turner, a Democrat from Grand Prairie and chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Democrat from Houston and chair of the the Legislative Study Group and the County Affairs Committee, calling the pledge a distraction “from the real issues we need to address,” like responding to the pandemic.

Rep. Ramon Romero, a Democrat from Fort Worth, who has previously expressed support for police reform measures, tweeted Wednesday that lawmakers don’t support defunding law enforcement, but rather are aiming to reform a system that is not working.

“Do I want to reimagine a broken + discriminatory criminal justice system? Absolutely,” Romero wrote.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody in May, a national conversation has arisen around police funding and police brutality. And it’s one that is not new to Fort Worth, where lawmakers renewed calls for statewide policing reforms after Atatiana Jefferson was fatally shot by a white Fort Worth officer in her home in October.

Criminal justice reform and funding for law enforcement is shaping up to be a central issue this upcoming legislative session. Last month, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus unveiled the George Floyd Act, a sweeping bill that aims to curb police use of force, ban chokeholds and more.

While Abbott himself has raised the possibility of a George Floyd Act, he said he supports better training and hiring policies for police.

“Are all law enforcement officers perfect? Absolutely not,” Abbott said. “We want to hire better officers. We want to train them better. Those things do require more funding.”

In a statement following Thursday’s press conference, Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said that Abbott’s pledge to defund cities, “that follow their values and prioritize local resources to better keep their communities safe essentially defunds the police.”

Before the pandemic hit, cities already anticipated losing millions in revenue due to Senate Bill 2, a sweeping bill that imposes a 3.5% cap on property tax revenues. And with the economic downturn brought on by the novel coronavirus’ outbreak, some of Texas’ largest cities have outlined budget shortfalls of over $100 million. Abbott’s proposal to freeze a city’s property tax revenue if it defunds its police department, would likely make those shortfalls grow.

Bonnen pushed back on the concerns local leaders previously raised that SB 2 would hurt cities’ abilities to fund essential services, like police — noting that the Austin City Council is diverting funds from its police department “at a tune exponentially greater than the lost additional revenue Senate Bill 2 would have ever had an impact on their city for.”

“They’re hypocrites — plain and simple. They’re sitting around and using law enforcement as a political tool when it serves them best,” Bonnen said.

©2020 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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