TEXAS VIEW: Lawmakers wrong to meddle in local law enforcement budgets

THE POINT: The Capitol has tightened its leash on cities and it won’t make anyone any safer.

Pop quiz: When is it a bad idea for the Texas Legislature to take action on an issue?

A. When the matter involves local spending decisions made by locally elected officials, who answer directly to local voters.

B. When the proposed remedy targets certain communities instead of applying even-handedly to the entire state.

C. When there is no data to justify the action.

D. When the so-called solution ties the hands of community leaders who need flexibility to address complex challenges.

We’ve hit all of the above with the Legislature’s bills to prevent efforts to “defund the police” — bills that, in reality, block cities and counties from making prudent cuts to law enforcement spending so they can invest in other public safety priorities.

House Bill 1900, passed by the Senate last week, unloads a heap of penalties on larger cities that reduce police funding. The bill would freeze a city’s tax rates and utility rates indefinitely, steer a slice of sales tax revenue back to the state and allow areas annexed within the past 30 years to vote on whether they’d like to leave the city. Another measure, SB 23, requires large counties to hold an election before cutting law enforcement funding or staffing.

The message is unmistakable: Lawmakers don’t want local police budgets to be cut.

But it’s not their call to make. At least, it shouldn’t be.

As we first noted last summer, decisions over policing levels and city spending are municipal calls, made by local officials who will have to answer directly to voters. It is insulting and absurd for lawmakers from other parts of the state to substitute their judgment for that of local officials crafting a city or county budget.

But what if local leaders stray from the will of the people? Elections are the proper avenue for course correction. Voters can always send officials packing. As illustrated by the recent passage of Proposition B, which reinstated the homeless camping ban the Austin City Council lifted in 2019, voters can also overrule City Hall on specific policies. Save Austin Now, the group that got Prop B on the ballot, launched a new campaign last Wednesday to address police staffing and training in Austin.

Rather than trust local voters to pick their leaders and hold them accountable, however, state lawmakers want to assert their own priorities — but only on certain communities. HB 1900 applies only to cities with more than 250,000 people — meaning, just 11 of the roughly 1,200 cities in Texas. SB 23 applies only to counties with more than 1 million people — meaning, just six of Texas’ 254 counties.

If these bills are such great ideas, if “backing the blue” is important enough to demand legislative intervention, why wouldn’t lawmakers want to protect police budgets statewide? Instead, legislators from Conroe, Friendswood and Richardson want to tell officials in Austin, Houston and San Antonio how to run their cities — all the while ensuring their own hometowns keep the budgeting flexibility to trim police funding if needed.

Public safety typically accounts for the largest chunk of a city’s budget. It’s a sign of good governance for cities to evaluate the effectiveness of that spending and realign dollars as needed — especially since lawmakers two years ago imposed even tighter tax revenue caps on local governments, forcing officials to make even tougher spending decisions.

Anyone who’s ever dialed 911 knows how critically important a law enforcement agency is to any community. But policing is only one piece of an effective public safety strategy. Officials need the flexibility to invest in other programs as well — items like a domestic violence shelter, mental health services, and programs to address family violence and prevent violence in the community, all of which got additional funding this year when Austin reduced its police budget.

Such interventions can keep some people out of jail and keep others from becoming victims. Local communities have every right to adjust the dollar amounts on various public safety priorities without meddling from the state.

Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, noted as much during debate on HB 1900, and he pressed supporters of the bill on whether any city has seen an uptick in crime after cutting police spending to put more funding toward social needs. Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said she had seen no such data.

In the absence of that data, in the absence of a legitimate state interest, and in the absence of a proposal that would be fairly applied statewide, lawmakers proceeded anyway. Once again the Capitol has tightened its leash on cities, and once again it won’t make anyone any safer.

Austin American-Statesman