This story was updated at 3:42pm May 11, 2021, to insert a corrected photo for interim police chief Joseph Chacon.
Rio Grande Valley Democrats vote with GOP to penalize police budget cuts
Eleven Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives, most of them from the Rio Grande Valley, voted with Republican lawmakers last Friday to approve a bill that was crafted in response to the City of Austin’s police budget cuts last year.
HB 1900 would trigger disannexation elections in parts of any city with a population of more than 250,000, in the event that the governor’s office designated the city a “defunding municipality.” The bill would also allow the state comptroller to withhold sales taxes owed to a “defunding” city and redirect it to the Department of Public Safety.
Those measures would make it difficult for Austin to move forward with aspects of its ongoing Reimagining Public Safety process, and could even pressure the city council to roll back cuts made to the police budget last year.
Politically, the vote on HB 1900 signals an emerging divide between Progressive Democrats in the larger cities of Texas and more centrist Democrats in south Texas. Republicans made significant inroads in the Rio Grande Valley in the 2020 election, improving their standing in national races, though state legislative seats in the region are still held by long-serving Democrats.
Those leaders are not only concerned about the political implications of Austin’s budget changes, which they see as damaging to the statewide Democrat brand, but also in some cases strongly object to them in principle.
Foremost among these critics is Rep. Richard Peña Raymond (D-Laredo), who slammed the Austin City Council budget vote as “dumb” at a March 25th committee hearing on HB 1900. He also called the mayor and council members “distasteful” and “chicken” for sending the acting police chief to testify against the bill rather than appearing themselves. (Council Member Greg Casar later did testify at the hearing.)
Raymond, an author of HB 1900 alongside four Republicans, sparred with fellow Democrats on the House floor last Thursday and Friday. “We don’t need to invest less in law enforcement. We need to invest more in law enforcement,” he said during the debate on second reading May 6th. “When I first ran for office, they asked me what’s the most important thing to you…I said the most important thing to me is public safety.”
“And in the 27 years I’ve been here that’s how I always answered the question, because if our communities are not safe, if our folks don’t feel safe, if we don’t have law and order, then nothing else really matters.”
By contrast, the City Council majority that voted for the budget cuts last year argued that Austin had over-invested in policing for too long, while under-investing in social services like substance abuse treatment and homeless services. By a unanimous vote in August 2020, the council trimmed the city police budget by about 5 percent while ordering major structural changes and signaling that deeper cuts were potentially in the offing.
But mixed messaging from the council left voters unsure about how deep the cuts would go and which aspects of policing might be affected in the long term. For example, Casar played up the move as an “over $100 million reduction of police funding”—which significantly exaggerated the budget cut—while other council members downplayed it.
These contradictions—as well as the complexity inherent in the proposed restructuring—made it difficult for Texas Democrats to keep control of the narrative during the 2020 election season. Governor Greg Abbott launched a “Back the Blue” pledge, and GOP candidates statewide seized on Austin’s budget vote as a sign of budding radicalism.
Looking ahead to the 2022 midterm election, Republican leaders are hoping to use police funding again as a wedge issue. During floor debate, Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth), the lead author of HB 1900, described it repeatedly as “the pro-police, Back the Blue bill.” Likewise, Raymond framed the bill as an election issue, cautioning fellow Democrats, “Understand, politically, that if you don’t vote for this bill it could be misinterpreted that you are not strong on law enforcement.”
“Absolutely, I’d use it against you. I’d use it against you in a heartbeat,” he said. “So expect that if you (vote against it). It’s a redistricting year. Some of the districts are going to change up. And issues will come up, they just will. So think about that a little bit.”
Judging by the vote counts on HB 1900 and a similar bill in the senate, SB 23, that message seems to be sinking in. Democrats in both chambers of the legislature—particularly those who represent majority Hispanic constituencies in the Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, and Houston—increasingly appear wary of falling into a GOP trap by opposing so-called “Back the Blue” legislation.
In the House, Raymond was joined by eight other South Texas Democrats in voting for HB 1900: Terry Canales (Edinburg), Bobby Guerra (McAllen), Ryan Guillen (Rio Grande City), Abel Herrero (Robstown), J.M. Lozano (Portland), Armando Martinez (Weslaco), Eddie Morales (Eagle Pass), and Sergio Muñoz Jr. (Mission).
Four of those—Guillen, Longoria, Lozano, and Morales—even signed on as co-authors of the bill. Dallas-area Democrat Victoria Neave (Mesquite) and Senfronia Thompson (Houston), the longest-serving Democrat in the House, also voted for HB 1900.
Another three Democrats, all from San Antonio, were present not voting: Elizabeth Campos, Ray Lopez, and Ina Minjarez. Four Democrats were absent.
Republicans put up a united front, apart from a few absences, resulting in a final vote total of 90 yeas, 49 nays, and 4 present, not voting.
HB 1900 is bracketed to cities with 250,000 people or more, which means it would apply only to 11 cities in Texas. Democratic efforts to stop the bill on the House floor centered around trying to convince GOP lawmakers that such a limitation was inconsistent and arbitrary. They introduced amendments to make the bill apply to every city in the state, saying it was unfair to target only the large cities.
That was a tactical move, since HB 1900 still would have been unacceptable to most House Democrats had that amendment passed.
Opponents also tried to water down the bill by introducing amendments to allow for reallocating police funding for a variety of other public safety purposes. During the debate on first reading, Austin Democrat Eddie Rodriguez introduced an amendment that would, in his words, “allow cities to transition certain responsibility from law enforcement to others that are better suited.”
Under his amendment, which failed, the Criminal Justice Division in the Office of the Governor would still have had to approve the reallocations.
Rep. Jarvis Johnson (D-Houston) raised the scenario of a city cutting police funding “If they have analytical data that crime is going down.” Even then, he said, a budget cut wouldn’t be allowed under the bill. He proposed five amendments over the course of two days to try to soften HB 1900, all of which were voted down or withdrawn.
Ahead of the final vote, Johnson vented his frustration at the bill author, Rep. Goldman: “You’re making everybody in this building feel intimidated because they’re afraid of someone saying that they have defunded police…We’re not trying to defund police. This is a very discriminatory bill that is only attacking certain cities. Is this really about public safety or is this about political propaganda? That’s what this is all about.”
For Johnson and other critics of HB 1900, the issue isn’t just one of local control of budgets. It’s about refusing to consider alternative public safety strategies, and the possibility that such bills could derail the momentum for police reform that was launched last year in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, an incident that stoked national outrage and protests.
Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas) condemned HB 1900 as a distraction from the real “elephant in the room,” which was police brutality against people of color. “We refuse to improve policing in this state,” she said, referring to the legislature’s inaction on a bill called the Texas George Floyd Act.
Tensions flared up Thursday and Friday between Raymond and other Democrats during floor debate over HB 1900, highlighting underlying divisions in the party.
Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos (D-Richardson) challenged Raymond Thursday about supporting a bill that potentially wouldn’t affect Laredo, the city that he represents, because of the population bracketing. (Until census results are finalized, it’s not clear whether the bill would impact Laredo). Raymond retorted, “I want this to be for every city in the state. Do an amendment that says Laredo and I’ll vote for it. Write it up for me.”
Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston), who opposed the bill, tried to call his bluff. He introduced several amendments Friday that would eliminate or modify the population bracketing, including one that specifically targeted the City of Laredo for inclusion in the bill. The effect of that would have been to strip Laredo of its power to reduce its police budget.
But Raymond, true to his word, voted in favor of the amendment (which failed), while also taking the opportunity to knock Wu: “I want to thank my dear friend Gene Wu for being so considerate of me,” he said sarcastically. “And please, if you want to make an amendment to the amendment, spell it ‘L-A-R-E-D-O represented by Raymond’ and put it on there. Let’s go. You think I was BSing you? Put Laredo in…Really, Gene? Bring it, baby, put it on. I’m all for it. Vote aye.”
For Raymond, the debate over police funding is very personal. He said during a hearing March 25 that his son died in Austin in December 2019, which led him to believe, “they need to invest more in police and the police department in Austin, Texas.”
According to an online obituary, 23-year-old Aren Davis Raymond “passed away in his sleep,” but his father’s remarks implied that there had been some kind of criminal investigation, or at least a suspicion of criminal involvement.
What’s a ‘defunding municipality’?
HB 1900 provides little leeway for a city to cut its police budget without running afoul of the new legal definition of “defunding” the police. Any reduced appropriation from one year to the next would count as “defunding,” unless it was proportionate to a budget cut for the city as a whole.
Other exceptions include a reduction related to capital expenditures in the preceding year, and a temporary spike in spending due to a declared disaster. But even cuts under those circumstances would have to first be approved by the Criminal Justice Division in the Governor’s Office.
Finally, the Criminal Justice Division could approve a police budget cut for “another reason” that it deemed appropriate. That provision could permit Austin to proceed with certain restructuring plans, such as making the 9-1-1 center an independent department, albeit only if the state approved of the measures.
Earlier this year, Austin transferred the Forensics Lab out of the Police Department and set it up as an independent department. While that change has reduced that APD budget—“defunding” it, per the definition of HB 1900—it hasn’t actually impacted the services provided by the lab, according to city leaders.
Consequences for Austin
If HB 1900 becomes law, it would provide strong disincentives for the city council to make further cuts to the police budget. Once designated as a “defunding municipality,” Austin would be prohibited from annexing any additional territory until it had reversed the funding reduction, according to the text of the bill.
Worse still, Austin would need to “hold a separate election in each area annexed in the preceding 30 years…on the question of disannexing the area.” That would take place on the next uniform election date after the designation as a defunding municipality. In the event that a neighborhood voted to disannex from the city, reannexation would be prohibited for 10 years if the city reversed its funding cut, or indefinitely if it did not.
HB 1900 also would restrict cities from increasing property taxes, and it could force a city to actually lower its property tax rate. The bill includes a formula for lowering the no-new-revenue rate for a defunding municipality to account for reduced public safety spending. Utility rate fees would also be frozen for a defunding municipality.
Another tax change in the bill aligns with the governor’s threats to send more Department of Public Safety troopers to Austin. HB 1900 would let the comptroller siphon off local sales tax dollars to pay for the presence of these troopers in the city.
Sales taxes in Texas are split between a state rate of 6.25 percent and a local rate up to 2 percent, but the state collects all sales taxes and then remits to local governments their share. Under the new process, the comptroller, before sending the city its share of taxes, would deduct “the amount of money the state spent in that state fiscal year to provide law enforcement services in that defunding municipality.”
The Criminal Justice Division in the Office of the Governor would be responsible for calculating the amount spent on public safety in a designated defunding municipality.
Effectively back-dating cuts
Even if Austin refrains from further budget cuts, it risks getting slapped with the “defunding” designation for actions already taken. According to the text of the bill, the designation would depend on a comparison of the city’s police budget for the fiscal year beginning after September 1, 2021 with the budget in either the “preceding fiscal year [2020-2021] or the second preceding fiscal year [2019-2020], whichever is greater.”
In other words, Austin would run afoul of the new law if it didn’t restore the roughly $20 million that it cut this year, and 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.
Passage of HB 1900 therefore could hasten the city to end the budgetary limbo of police units within the Decouple Fund and Reimagine Fund, or face consequences. That would ensure the survival of certain units like the horse patrol and lake patrol, but it would also kill any possibility of reallocating funding for alternative public safety strategies that a Reimagining Public Safety Task Force is currently examining.
‘Overstep by the legislature’
Joseph Chacon, Austin’s acting chief of police, said at the March 25th committee hearing that he opposes HB 1900 because it doesn’t give the city enough flexibility to reallocate funds toward services like mental health first responders.
“We believe there may be times that a designated priority may need additional funding over that of the police department, and which can be reallocated from the police without negatively impacting police services. This is what we did during this last budget cycle.”
The chief later added, however, that he was “not happy” that the department had lost 150 positions and that he hoped to regain those positions in future years.
But he defended the need for local control over budget decisions on such matters. “I’m here today as the chief of police in a city that these bills deem a ‘defunding municipality’ to tell you that this is an overstep by the legislature. These decisions must be made at the local level by our community when and to the degree needed to help build trust.”
Finally, Chacon contended that budget levels alone weren’t a good metric for how safe a police department is keeping a community. Instead, he suggested that policymakers should be looking at crime rates and customer satisfaction levels with the police force.
Senate bill less draconian
It’s not clear whether HB 1900 will go far in the Texas Senate. It was referred yesterday to the Jurisprudence Committee, where it could languish. Toward the end of a busy legislative session, even priority bills can get lost in the shuffle.
That might be the council’s best hope at this point. However, the Senate itself has already approved its own version of a bill that takes aim at cities that cut police spending. Senate Bill 23 would prevent a city from reducing the police budget without voter approval, if the cut was disproportionate to an overall budget cut.
The bill doesn’t include the same provisions for disannexation elections, nor does it require any comparison to the city budget approved two years ago, as the House version does. That would give Austin a pass on the budget cuts already implemented.
Notably, Senators Juan Hinojosa (D-McAllen), Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville), and Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo)—all Rio Grande Valley lawmakers—voted in favor of SB 23, as did César Blanco (D-El Paso), and five other Democrat senators.
Only two Democrats in the senate, Sarah Eckhardt of Austin and Boris Miles of Houston, voted against SB 23, while Nathan Johnson of Dallas was present-not voting.
Zaffirini, explaining her vote, condemned “extrajudicial killings of persons of color by law enforcement” while also describing herself as a person who “backs the blue.” She called for improved training and hiring practices, and enhanced accountability for police.
“That said,” she added, “I do not believe that ‘defunding the police’ is a viable or helpful policy proposal. (SB 23) is not a perfect bill, but it is a measured, sensible response.”
For Zaffirini, one reason for supporting SB 23 was that it doesn’t prohibit cuts to police spending, but instead puts question in the hands of local voters. That kind of flexibility is lacking in the House bill. Her remarks therefore suggest that she might oppose that bill, despite supporting another so-called “Back the Blue” bill.
House lawmakers appear open to considering SB 23 as an alternative to their own bill. The House State Affairs Committee passed a version of SB 23 yesterday by a vote of 8-3, then sent it to House Calendars, which decides which legislation goes to the floor.
What happens next for these bills is unclear. The fate of Austin’s Reimagining Public Safety Process will depend in part on the outcome of legislative maneuvers in the days ahead. Austin lawmakers like Rep. Donna Howard (who sparred with bill author Craig Goldman in committee) and Eddie Rodriguez have tried to stop HB 1900, or barring that, at least to moderate the legislation before it becomes law.
But ultimately the fate of these bills may not lie in the hands of anyone in Austin. It lies in the Rio Grande Valley.
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 12 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.
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Links to related Bulldog coverage:
Did Austin ‘defund’ the police? Here are the numbers, December 13, 2020