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Texas House on Monday brought forward the Senate proposal to require voter approval before law enforcement budget cuts after making a substantial change: Senate Bill 23 would only apply to counties over a million people, not to municipal governments or less populated jurisdictions.
The bill is part of a Republican-led effort to protect law enforcement funding after civil rights activists last year called on local governments to cut what they spend on police and reforming police behavior, which has led Austin to cut its police budget. The demand for systemic change came in the wake of repeated murders of black and Hispanic people by law enforcement in Texas and across the country, including the murder of George Floyd last May.
The Senate bill is also one of the two main pieces of legislation on the financing of law enforcement through the chambers. If they both become law, Texas’ most populous cities and counties will have substantially different barriers to reducing law enforcement funding.
On Monday, the House tentatively approved Senator Joan Huffman’s SB 23 by a vote of 86 to 57 after about two hours of heated speeches and debate between the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Tom Oliverson, R- Cypress and several House Democrats. When passed by the Senate, the bill applied to all cities and counties in Texas, but was amended in the House State Affairs Committee to apply only to the most populous counties. A House bill awaiting a full Senate hearing would financially punish large cities that cut police funding.
“Texans deserve to feel safe in their communities, and this bill ensures that local voters have a say in a critical decision,” Oliverson told the House Monday.
Supporters have felt the Senate and House bills are essential to protect public safety as homicide rates continue to rise in cities across the state and nation. Opponents of the bill have called the bill a political appeasement that blocks necessary police reforms. The term ‘defund the police’ has become increasingly politicized, although its intent may range from activists seeking complete abolition to localities transferring policing tasks, such as operating criminal laboratories, to civilian roles. .
“This is tyranny, this is excessive government action,” said State Representative Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston, in a speech against the bill. “We have decided to take a few buzzwords and slogans to show partisanship and divide this state and this country.”
The bill still needs to be passed in the House before it can be sent to the Senate to accept House changes or negotiate disputes behind closed doors.
The House’s police funding measure, House Bill 1900, would financially penalize cities with populations over 250,000 if the governor’s office found they were cutting their police budgets. The state would siphon off certain sales taxes for state use and prohibit the city from increasing property taxes or utility charges. Huffman, a Republican from Houston, chairs the Senate jurisprudence committee that approved the House bill on Thursday and sent it to the plenary hall which could hear it before Wednesday. Earlier this month, House Democrats argued that the cap of 250,000 was a clear indication that HB 1900 was only for the Republican-led state to control large, mostly liberal cities.
Under SB 23, the $ 1 million cap would only apply to Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis counties – and possibly Collin County once new census figures are released later this year. .Several amendments proposed by the Democrats failed on Monday. State Representative Celia Israel D-Austin tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to remove demographic limitations.
“If we’re going to give these mandates to five counties, let’s put those expectations on each county,” she said. “If you really think the State of Texas has a viable role to play in this kind of intrusive management of the way our local authorities do their jobs, you have to support it.
State Representative Gene Wu, D-Houston, suggested the cap could lead to legal action over the intent of the bill. Oliverson pushed back on the amendment, saying the problem lies in large urban counties. Johnson and State Representative Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, countered that the real problem was police brutality.
“The problem in my community is not the defund issue, the problem is policing in my community,” Crockett said.
Oliverson countered that under this bill the community could then vote to reduce the police budget. But he later speculated that departments facing allegations of misconduct should not suffer budget cuts either.
“It may be a department that needs better training,” he said.
The legislation is directly in response to the city of Austin, where Mike Ramos was killed by police a month before Floyd. After a summer of unrest, the city council responded by cutting its police budget. Almost all of the decrease is due to a change in accounting which still allows traditional police functions to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. About 7 p. 100, or $ 31 million, was cut immediately and instead went to other public services, such as housing and mental health. Still, the move prompted an immediate reaction from Republican heads of state, who have since rallied around efforts to “back off” and stop efforts to “dispel the police”.
Since the Austin budget vote in August, the governor has fought steadily to maintain police funding while remaining largely silent on reforms in police behavior or accountability. In February, Abbott made punishing cities that cut police funding an emergency issue for the 2021 legislature.
Meanwhile, the George Floyd Act of Texas, a sweeping police reform bill pushed by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, never made it past its first committee hearing.
Some stand-alone provisions of the bill have been more successful in both chambers, but House police reform bills have since languished in the Senate, having not been heard by Huffman’s committee in the Wednesday’s deadline for chamber approval is approaching. House bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more consistent and substantive disciplinary measures for officer misconduct, bar officers arresting people for code violations of the road and would require corroboration of the testimonies of undercover officers in the drug cases.
Senate police reform bills, however, are more narrowly targeted and approved by police unions. On Sunday, the House finally passed the Senate bill requiring police to provide first aid to the injured and call emergency services. This week, the House is expected to hear Senate action to largely ban police strangling and force police to intervene if a colleague uses excessive force, but it is unclear whether they will show up before a date. procedural limit Wednesday.