In One State, a Threat to Freeze Property Taxes in Cities That ‘Defund’ Police

The American flag and Texas state flag fly outside the Texas state Capitol building in Austin.

The American flag and Texas state flag fly outside the Texas state Capitol building in Austin. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

The proposal from Texas’ governor and other Republicans in the state comes in response to cuts and other changes that Austin made to its police budget.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Republicans in the state’s legislature are threatening to freeze property tax revenues for cities in the state that slash funding for law enforcement. The plan marks one of the latest moves by GOP elected officials that draws attention to the hot-button issue of police funding in the run-up to the November election and it fits with a pattern in Texas of state lawmakers blocking local policies.

The proposal, announced Tuesday, came after the city council in Austin voted last week to cut, shift and review police department spending that, taken together, totals around $150 million. Austin Mayor Steve Adler contends that only about $20 million of that should be characterized as a “cut,” an amount he said is equal to about 4% or 5% of the police department budget.

"This was not punitive, nor was it an attack on our police officers,” he said on Tuesday. “We have exceptional police officers.”

Adler emphasized that no police officers were laid off as part of the reduction to the law enforcement budget. He also described how the spending changes involve increasing funding on services to help the homeless, people with mental health issues and victims of domestic violence, as well as moving some police department functions to other parts of government.

Reacting to the GOP property tax proposal, the mayor said: "Any kind of cap that's imposed at the state level on local communities is a problem, because I think it takes away fundamental and basic freedom, rights from local communities to be able to decide what their priorities are."

Texas, where Republicans control the state government while some cities like Austin lean more Democratic, is known as a hotbed for state preemption of local policies. Laws in place restrict local action in a wide range of areas, such as plastic bag bans, gun regulations, gas and oil drilling, and setting the minimum wage.

In this case, Abbott, a Republican, argues that reduced police spending will put residents in danger and “invites lawlessness into our communities.”

“Any city in the state of Texas that defunds law enforcement will have their property tax revenue frozen as of that time,” he said during a press conference.

“And that does mean, yes, in the future, if they do face tough economic times, it means they will have no ability to increase that property tax revenue,” the governor added. “It ensures those cities know if they do make the decision to defund law enforcement, they are constricting their ability to ever be able to meet the other needs they have.”

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen was also at the press conference and said his chamber would “100% support this legislation.” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick endorsed the measure as well. “What they have done in Austin should never happen in any city in the state. And we're going to pass legislation to be sure that it never happens again,” he said.

Unclear from the comments the state officials made on Tuesday is what level of “defunding” might trigger the property tax freeze. Texas' next regular legislative session, when the proposal could be considered, is set to begin in January.

The death of George Floyd in May after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for about eight minutes set off a wave of protests over law enforcement practices and racial disparities in the country, and has sparked a debate about sharply cutting police funding.

Activists who support “defunding” the police say that past attempts at police reform and retraining officers to reduce the number of Black people killed or otherwise harmed during encounters with law enforcement have been unsuccessful.

The thinking generally goes that some portion of the billions of dollars now spent each year nationwide on policing could be diverted to areas like housing, education and health care. But discussions about these sorts of changes to local government spending are proving to be deeply controversial, especially in places where city lawmakers are backing aggressive cuts.

In Seattle, a majority of the city council’s members earlier this summer pledged their support for cutting the city’s roughly $400 million police budget by 50%. After the council approved an initial round of cuts earlier this month, the city’s police chief, Carmen Best, announced her resignation.

Like many policy issues in America today, debate over police funding has fractured sharply along partisan lines—a dynamic heightened by the approaching November election.

President Trump and other Republicans have seized on the issue of police funding as the coronavirus pandemic grinds on and many polls show the president trailing in his reelection bid against Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden.

In remarks earlier this month, Trump charged that “if the Democrats controlled in Washington,” they’d pass legislation “gutting every single police department in America.”

“Many of these people want to defund the police department,” he added. “At a minimum, they’re to stop money from going to the police department, but in many cases they actually wanted to defund, completely, the police department. No city, no town, and no suburb would be safe.”

Biden has said he does not support defunding the police. “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms,” he wrote in a June op-ed.

Biden also said in the article that he does “not believe federal dollars should go to police departments violating people’s rights or turning to violence as the first resort.”

At the state level, Republican attorneys general have launched a “lawless liberals” campaign this election season, accusing Democratic AGs of not speaking out against law enforcement defunding proposals or condemning episodes of violent unrest that have unfolded in some cities. The campaign touts GOP attorneys general as pro-police and focused on law and order.

In Austin, Adler said the roughly $20 million cut from the police department budget came from not hiring for unfilled positions, reducing overtime and delaying three police academy classes.

These savings from the department, he said, would go towards programs meant to help people who are homeless, expanding emergency medical services and mental health first responders and providing shelter for women who are facing domestic violence. 

With another $80 million of the city’s spending plan, the mayor said, operations now under Austin’s police department, like a forensic lab, 911 telephone service, internal affairs and administrative services would be moved to civilian control, or made more independent.

And lastly, he said, the city would review, but not yet cut or change, another $50 million of police programs, such as mounted patrol, traffic enforcement, training and loud noise enforcement.

“We did not cut $150 million of police functions,” Adler said. Figures his office has publicized indicate the steps he described the council taking would have no affect on $294 million of the police budget.

Texas state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Republican who has represented a district in the Ft. Worth area for 27 years and is running for reelection this year, said she supports funding mental health programs, rape crisis centers and domestic violence shelters. “But you don’t have to defund law enforcement to accomplish those objectives,” said Nelson, who is backing the property tax freeze proposal.

Adler said late Tuesday afternoon he had no warning that Republican leaders would announce the measure. He said he was uncertain whether a written version of the proposal had been drafted yet, or if the state had the legal authority to carry out the revenue freeze.

The mayor described the press conference where Abbott and other Republicans unveiled their plan as “mostly about trying to make us afraid and scared.” He added: “My concern is that we're going to see more and more of that the closer we get to November.”

Bill Lucia is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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