AUSTIN (Texas Tribune/KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a slate of legislation Tuesday that targets protesters and restricts cities’ abilities to reduce police budgets.
In a ceremony attended by state law enforcement associations and bill authors, Abbott signed four Republican-backed bills aimed at widespread protests over police killings of Black and Hispanic Americans and calls to reduce spending on law enforcement.
House Bill 9, a priority bill for the lower chamber, requires jail time for people who knowingly block emergency vehicles or hospital entrances after a California incident last September where the sheriff’s department said protesters blocked a police car with two injured officers from entering a hospital.
Similarly, House Bill 2366 makes it a felony to use fireworks to interfere with official police activity or use a laser pointer to cause bodily injury to an officer. Prior to the bill, using a laser pointer was only a misdemeanor offense.
Critics have decried both bills as overly punitive, while Abbott and other supporters have called them necessary to keep law enforcement safe.
The other bills create two new barriers to big cities that wish to reduce their law enforcement budgets. Abbott called police budget reductions “downright dangerous” and a “reckless decision” in a press release after signing the legislation.
Though calls to “defund the police” can mean several things, it usually includes reallocating money to other social services or investing in alternative public safety programs.
Last August, the Austin City Council voted to cut and reallocate a third of their police department’s then-$434 million budget. Some of the money was redirected to violence prevention and food access programs, while other funds were reduced so duties like forensic sciences and victims’ services could be moved to other departments.
The Council vote unanimously to move about $150 million from Austin Police Department’s 2020-21 budget into other areas and programs, like public health, permanent supportive housing, and Austin-Travis County EMS COVID-19 response. The decision also effectively halted new cadet classes.
Abbott has condemned the decision several times.
“When crime is on the rise, the last thing we should do is defund law enforcement — and yet that is exactly what the City of Austin did… defunding police puts residents in danger and it invites lawlessness into our communities,” Abbott said last August.
Under House Bill 1900, if a municipality with a population over 250,000 reduces its law enforcement budget, the state would deduct money from its sales tax and ban the city from increasing property taxes or utility fees. Any areas annexed within the last 30 years could vote to deannex, and the municipality would be banned from annexing any further areas.
Senate Bill 23 applies to counties with a population over one million, requiring them to hold elections before reducing or reallocating their law enforcement budgets. Counties that do so without voter approval would have their property tax revenue frozen.
Both bills make exceptions for budget reductions in the face of disaster declarations, while HB 1900 also exempts municipalities that only reduce their law enforcement budgets at the same percentage that they reduce their overall budget.
Still on Abbott’s desk are bills that ban unnecessary police chokeholds and require officers to administer first-aid and keep their body cameras on for the entirety of an investigation.
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at www.texastribune.org. The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.