Both chambers of Texas Legislature pass bill that could trigger disannexation elections throughout Austin
The Texas Senate today blitzed through the normal procedures to pass HB 1900, a bill that could trigger disannexation elections in many parts of Austin. This is a direct response to police budget cuts last year.
HB 1900 establishes criteria for determining whether a city is a “defunding municipality” that has cut its police department budget disproportionally to the rest of its budget. Once such a designation is made, the city would have to “hold a separate election in each area annexed in the preceding 30 years by the defunding municipality on the question of disannexing the area.”
If Austin gets hit with the designation—which appears likely under the definition set in the bill—then disannexation elections would be triggered in vast tracts of Austin annexed since the 1990s, including River Place, Cat Mountain Villas, the Samsung Semiconductor plant and nearby areas, Southpark Meadows, and Onion Creek.
According to the text of the bill, any areas that opted to disannex couldn’t be reannexed until ten years later, if the city first “reversed the reduction” to the police budget.
The bill also could potentially force a city to freeze or even lower its property tax rate, and it could allow the comptroller to withhold sales taxes owed to a city and redirect it to the Texas Department of Public Safety. It would be up to the Criminal Justice Division in the Office of the Governor to determine whether a city met the legal criteria of being a “defunding municipality.”
HB 1900 is the harsher of two bills that the Bulldog previously reported were moving through the legislature. It cleared the House of Representatives May 7 with the support of 11 Democrats, most of whom represent districts in the Rio Grande Valley.
After languishing without movement in the upper chamber for two weeks, it cleared the Senate Jurisprudence Committee Friday by a vote of 4-1, including one Democrat, Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen).
Hinojosa offered three friendly amendments on the senate floor today that tweaked the bill, all of which passed. Once the House concurs to those amendments, it will go to the governor. Hinojosa said today that he had worked with the governor’s office “making sure they were acceptable,” which indicates that Abbott is closely tracking the bill and intends to sign it.
In fact, he tweeted Sunday, “We’re about to pass a law—that I will sign—that will prevent cities from defunding police. Sanity and safety will return.”
Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth), the House author of the bill, indicated that he would work to secure approval of the three Senate amendments. He wrote on Twitter, “Thank you Senator @joanhuffman for your hard work to pass #HB1900 in the Texas Senate. I look forward to concurring with the amendments and then will see you at the bill signing ceremony with @GovAbbott. #HB1900 makes our communities safer and proves that we #BackTheBlue.”
HB 1900 would apply to any city with a population more than 250,000. It would penalize any such city “that adopts a budget for a fiscal year that, in comparison to the municipality’s preceding fiscal year, reduces the appropriation to the municipality’s police department.”
Certain exceptions would be allowed, if pre-approved by the Criminal Justice Division in the Office of the Governor. Those exceptions include reductions in capital expenditures, a declared disaster, or, sweepingly, “another reason approved by the division.”
Crucially, the bill also includes a temporary provision that would allow the governor’s office to compare the City of Austin’s upcoming FY2021-22 budget to the budget adopted two years ago, FY2019-2020, which is before the city cut its police budget.
The bill says, “In making a determination of whether a municipality is a defunding municipality… according to the budget adopted for the first fiscal year beginning on or after September 1, 2021, the [Criminal Justice Division in the Office of the Governor] shall compare the appropriation to the municipality’s police department in that budget to the appropriation to that department in the budget of the preceding fiscal year or the second preceding fiscal year, whichever is greater.”
In other words, the bill would empower the governor to slap the City of Austin with a “defunding” designation for budget actions already taken in August last year, since the bill allows comparison to the “second preceding fiscal year.”
That would raise the stakes for the upcoming council budget process, expected to culminate in August, potentially pressuring council members to restore the roughly $20 million that the council cut from the police department budget in August 2020.
On top of that, the council could come under pressure to reconsider the status of the $120 million that it transferred into a transitional Decouple Fund and Reimagine Safety Fund. Even though most of the money in those transitional funds is still being spent on police functions, it’s no longer part of the APD budget per se, and HB 1900 defines “defunding municipality” in terms of the city’s “police department” budget.
Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), the sponsor, seemed unaware that her bill could trigger consequences for actions already taken by the City of Austin. When she laid out the bill today, she said, “It is my hope that this legislation never has to be used.”
Democrats in opposition
Three Democrat senators today spoke against HB 1900 during debate on the bill. Senator Nathan Johnson (D-Dallas), suggested that the bracketing of the bill to cities of only 250,000 or more suggested that it was a “political show instead of anything serious.”
He also expressed reluctance to “interfere with the work of city councils,” and he argued that funding alone shouldn’t be a metric for whether a city is considered safe or not. He suggested that a rise in crime would be a better trigger to use, for example.
Johnson also questioned Huffman as to why she was pushing HB 1900 rather than the Senate’s own “Back the Blue” bill, SB 23, which was considerably less harsh than HB 1900. His remarks implied that the House had taken control of the process and that some of the bipartisan work that had gone into making SB 23 acceptable to a number of Democrats had gone out the window. Johnson had voted “present not voting” on SB 23 when it cleared the Senate.
That bill would have required a city to seek voter approval before cutting a police department budget, and it also would not have impacted Austin for budget cuts already made last year.
The Texas House has advanced SB 23, but in a different form from what the Senate passed over a month ago. During the committee hearing on the bill, the chairman of the State Affairs committee laid out a substitute version that restricted its applicability to counties alone.
Given that change, if both bills become law, one set of “defunding” restrictions and penalties will apply to large counties, while another set will apply to large cities. SB 23 passed the House on second reading today, shortly before the Senate took up HB 1900.
Huffman, replying to Johnson on the Senate floor today, said, “As often happens in legislation and during the legislative process the House had different ideas about how this should be handled.” She went on to suggest that she was okay with the House changes.
“They actually just passed Senate Bill 23 off the House floor. It will be coming over here and you will see it again and I will be discussing it on the Senate floor.”
Senator Sarah Eckhardt, who represents Austin, questioned Huffman about the allowable exceptions in the bill. She raised a number of hypothetical scenarios that she said would represent legitimate reasons to cut a police department budget without endangering public safety.
For example, she said, “If there were a change in the terrain with regard to state and federal investment in mental health care and a community decided to pull that proportion out of policing…would that be ‘defunding’ that we would need to get the governor’s office approval for?”
Huffman declined to discuss such hypotheticals.
Senator Borris Miles (D-Houston) commented on the politics around the bill. He said, “I truly feel that this bill is more about taking local authority away more than it is about funding police departments. This bill puts us Democrats in a difficult position with police officers.”
“This bill almost controls our narrative and it’s not the narrative that we abide by. It’s not the narrative of Democrats. And I almost feel like you’re trying to control the Democratic party’s narrative with this bill.”
“Respectfully, you’re kind of putting us in a bad position with our police officers whom we very much appreciate and whom we very much value.”
Senator Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville), voiced support for the bill, saying he even wanted it to be bracketed more broadly to cities of 150,000 or more. “I don’t look at it in a partisan way,” he said. “Opening the door to criminal activity is something that I don’t want to see anywhere in our state or in our country for that matter. I think that this is a step in the right direction.”
On the House side, Austin lawmaker Celia Israel condemned SB 23 as it came up for a vote on second reading today. She called it “intrusive management of how our local authorities are doing their job…It’s pandering to a topic that became an issue in the last political cycle.”
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 12 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.
Links to related documents:
Links to related Bulldog coverage:
Legislation would hammer Austin over police funding, May 11, 2021
Did Austin ‘defund’ the police? Here are the numbers, December 13, 2020