Austin Braces for 2021 Legislative Outcomes
By Angelo Gaunichaux
As the 87th Texas Legislature approaches mid-session, Governor Greg Abbott’s battle with Austin City Council over police funding is reaching a boiling point as a number of bills take aim at local governments’ control over police funding.
Last August, Austin City Council members unanimously passed the city’s 2021 budget, cutting one-third of the Austin Police Department’s funding, and immediately reinvesting $21 million. The cancellation of three cadet training classes totals $13 million alone. Some of these reallocated funds will help cover the maintenance costs of two hotels the city has acquired to help house people experiencing homelessness, aid Austin EMS’ COVID response, and fund other social services.
However, bills filed by Texas legislators and expected legislation – or perhaps even an emergency order – backed by Gov. Greg Abbott would bar efforts to reallocate police or other public safety funding.
In late December, Abbott announced a proposal that would place APD under the control of the Texas Department of Public Safety, moving local law enforcement under the aegis of the state. Most recently, Abbott rebuked the city’s move to defund the police in his State of the State address on Feb 5. But the governor has yet to release an emergency order that would “make it fiscally impossible for Austin to defund its police,” he said at a round table in early January.
At least two state representatives aren’t waiting for the governor’s order or proposed legislation. Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, and Rep. Steve Allison, R-San Antonio have filed two alternative approaches for keeping police department funding consistent with last year.
Krause’s HB 638 would force municipalities to fund police, EMT, and fire departments with the same amount of money allocated in the previous year – or not offer the item in the budget at all.
“There are lots of bills aimed at keeping Texans safe,” Krause’s legislative director Karl Schmidt said. “Currently, we don’t have a position on HB 741 but are likely to support any bills that do that.”
In HB 741, Rep. Allison proposed giving more control to local voters. Under his proposal, any county or municipal budget that seeks to reduce a public safety budget by 5 percent or more would trigger a local election to vote on the move.
“HB 638 provides a prohibition, while HB 741 submits it to the local voters,” Allison said. “But both bills serve to preserve the government’s essential obligations of public safety: law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical services.”
Austin City Council has made it clear, however, that they are determined to tackle the systemic issues brought up in the summer protests by reallocating funds from its police department toward social services.
Newly elected council member Mackenzie Kelly, one of the most conservative voices on the dais, has said she opposes defunding the police but is not strictly against a reimagining of public safety. Although she was elected after the council’s vote to reallocate APD funding, she has expressed reservations about the acquisition of one of the hotels in her district, the operation of which would be partly paid with those funds. Going forward, the divisions between Kelly and the majority of the other council members, such as progressive Greg Casar, may deepen as more bills affecting Austin’s autonomy begin to gain traction.
City hall officials declined to speculate on possible budget concerns that might result from the House bills or other potential state legislation, but a spokesperson from the city’s Reimagining Public Safety team said Austin would continue to oppose legislation that restricts its ability to effectively serve and protect the local community.
“The City of Austin believes in investing in effective programs and strategies to make Austin a place where the efforts of police are supported with high caliber training, public safety investments to prevent crime from occurring in the first place, and more appropriate handling of mental health crises and social services,” said Alicia Dean a communications and marketing consultant for the group. “Without the ability to manage our own local budgets, the city cannot effectively do those things.”