FORT WORTH, Texas (KXAN) — In a news conference on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott expressed his disapproval for the City of Austin’s decision to transition funding out of Austin Police Department — and announced a proposal stating that any Texas cities that defund their police from now on will have their ability to increase property taxes frozen.
It comes in the wake of efforts by Austin and many other large cities to strip away money and responsibilities from local police departments, a move many conservatives have criticized.
“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,” said Abbott.
The Governor said cities that put their residents lives in danger should not be able to collect their tax dollars.
Abbott explained this stance based on statistics that show crime in Austin is on the rise — including saying Austin is the number one city in America in year-to-year percentages in murder increases. He said that aggravated robberies have increased by 14% while robberies have increased by 14%.
“Just because there is an act, or many acts committed by law enforcement does not mean that we reduce law enforcement,” Abbott said.
The Governor explained that while police reform is needed, it’s not a reason to reduce police budget.
Abbott led the news conference alongside Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. During the conference, Patrick also condemned the City of Austin’s vote, saying that Austin and its leadership is moving “in the opposite direction” of where it needs to be going.
“Not only has Austin defunded police, they’ve taken away vital weapons they could use to disperse crowds… not city in Texas should be able to do this again,” Patrick said.
During the conference, Patrick also expressed that incidents would be a lot worse if law enforcement were not present and armed — in addition to private, armed citizens, claiming “the left” also “wants to take away guns from private citizens, not only police.”
Other officials who joined the conference include Tarrant County’s Republican delegation:
- Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price
- State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound
- State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills
- State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth
- State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth
- State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth
- State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake
Gov. Abbott promised legislative action after the Austin City Council approved the city’s budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that included a $150 million shift in funds away from the Austin Police Department.
Only about $20 million of that was money taken away from the police department. The rest was a coordinated effort to move areas the police department oversees — like the DNA crime lab — and put that under civilian oversight.
It’s unclear if the proposal has been written as a bill with details about what the Texas Legislature would consider next legislative session.
Abbott’s office did not response to questions from KXAN about what Abbott considers “defunding” and whether or not a bill has been written.
Austin mayor responds to Abbott’s proposal
Austin Mayor Steve Adler responded to Abbott in his own press conference Tuesday afternoon.
He says it was cities are who protected residents from the coronavirus with mandatory mask orders and other safety protocols, not the state. Much in the same way, he says it is cities now that are progressing and re-imagining public safety.
He says Abbott’s press conference was only furthering lies.
“The press conference today was not about facts. It presented no data. It was about trying to make us scared,” Adler said.
He says peddling fear and avoiding to engage in policy discussions is a “sickness” he believes we will see more of as the November election approaches. He says he hopes voters turn away from it.
Although Abbott said Austin had the biggest increase in homicide rate year-to-year, Adler pointed out that Austin had the second-lowest homicide rate of major cities in the country, even after the increase.
Adler addressed the intricacies of the $150 million being redirected out of the Austin Police Department. He says out of that $150 million, only $20 million was really cut from police budget, and it’s being moved to other public safety programs to help with mental health and homelessness.
He says that $20 million cut unfilled officer positions and the delay of three cadet classes.
“It’s important to note that we did not lay off any officers. There was no detrimental impact on emergency response,” he said.
Adler says $80 million out of the $150 million was to make entities like the forensics lab more independent — the lab’s services itself were not cut.
“It was to move certain functions to civilian control and a more independent status,” he said. “No function was ended. No function was reduced.”
As for the remaining $50 million, Adler says the city is just reevaluating the current responsibilities of officers, and how they could find other personnel that would be a better fit for some jobs.
“Safety is our primary concern — keeping our community safe. And that means safety for all,” Adler said.
Adler says public safety is broader than just the police department, EMS and the fire department.
“If the governor wants to have a conversation about policy and public safety — what we need to do to make us safer — then I’m ready to engage,” Adler said.
He says he hopes they can begin to talk about public safety in a new way.
“Our state should be celebrating and learning from our cities instead of threatening them and trying to change them.”
Can the state retroactively punish Austin?
Lt. Gov. Patrick indicated the proposal would retroactively impact the decision made by Austin City Council.
“I hope that legislation in its final form will roll back what they’ve done,” he said. “The people of Austin deserve to be protected by their police.”
Chad Ruback, an attorney and expert on constitutional law, said it’s unclear whether the state has the authority to freeze a city’s property taxes based on that city’s decisions on police budgets.
“This is uncharted territory,” Ruback said. “I don’t remember every seeing any sort of proposal remotely like this in the past, so there’s not precedent for us to predict courts might do.”
Ruback said if the proposal is ultimately passed by the Texas Legislature, lawsuits will quickly follow.
“Generally, the legislature acts before vetting things,” he said. “After that we’ll let the lawyers sort things out.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he was not aware of the proposal before it was announced by Gov. Abbott during a press conference on Tuesday. He also did not know if the state had the authority to implement such a proposal, since he hasn’t been able to read it.