Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Tuesday that he plans to help craft state legislation that would permanently freeze property tax rates in any Texas city that votes to reduce funding for local police departments. Abbott revealed the policy during a press conference in Fort Worth, flanked by his conservative statehouse allies Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and outgoing Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who both support the proposal.
“Cities that endanger residents by reducing law enforcement should not then be able to turn around and go back and get more property tax dollars from those same residents whose lives the city just endangered,” Abbott said, explaining his rationale for a policy that if passed into law would take a proven tool for increasing local revenues away from city governments who cut police funding even in the slightest.
Tuesday’s announcement from Abbott was a clear threat to cities across the state not to follow the lead of Austin, whose City Council decided last week to authorize $150 million in cuts to the city’s police department, a one-third decrease from its previous $434 million budget.
“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 never happens again,” Patrick said.
Austin’s move to reduce police funding came in the wake of increased support for defunding police departments across the country. Reducing police budgets has become a widely discussed policy issue ever since the murder of George Floyd rallied many progressive policy advocates to demand that police funding be reallocated toward non-police programs and initiatives to promote public safety.
Abbott, Patrick and Bonnen all said that they believe the Texas Legislature should take up this issue, but without calling a special session — which neither Abbott nor his allies have signaled a willingness to do, even amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — state legislators wouldn’t be able to do so until the state’s 87th legislative session begins in January 2021.
State Democrats were quick to accuse Abbott of using Tuesday’s press conference to distract the public from his administration’s handling of the pandemic. “Because of Trump and Abbott’s failures, 500,000 Texans have contracted the virus and more than 10,000 Texans are dead. It never had to be this way,” said Abhi Rahman, the Texas Democratic Party’s Communications Director. “If Donald Trump and Greg Abbott were really focused on safety for our families, they would have listened to doctors and scientists instead of lobbyists and donors.”
A large-scale defunding of the Houston Police Department similar to what was approved in Austin doesn’t appear to be likely any time soon. In early June, the Houston City Council approved a $19 million increase to HPD’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year after rejecting a proposal from Councilmember Leticia Plummer that would have cut $12 million from local police.
In a Monday afternoon press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said that while he believes “if you invest in people in their communities, then you don’t have to spend an inordinate amount of resources then trying to police individuals,” he still thinks increasing HPD funding was the right move for his city.
“The budget that we passed in June is a budget that best fits the needs of the people in this community,” Turner said.