Senate Takes Time to Make Austin Pay for De-policing

Making up trouble

Sen. Joan Huffmann, author of the "Back the Blue" Senate Bill 23 (Courtesy of the Texas Senate)

After yet another killing of an unarmed Black man by a white police officer a few miles from where the officer who killed George Floyd last year stood trial for murder, on Tuesday evening, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted, "Daunte Wright's killing was not a random, disconnected 'accident' – it was the repeated outcome of an indefensible system that grants impunity for state violence, rewards it w/ endlessly growing budgets at the cost of community investment, & targets those who question that order." Less than an hour later, the Texas Senate proved AOC's point, approving Senate Bill 23, by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, one of many attempts this session by GOP legislators to make hay from Austin's supposedly controversial and supposedly disastrous de-policing moves last year. If enacted, SB 23 would require any city to seek voter approval before adopting a budget that reduces or reallocates police funding or staffing, or else it takes a hit to its property tax rate. (You may remember last session's imbroglio about reducing cities' tax "revenue cap" to 3.5%; this would reduce it to zero.)

Huffman's bill is actually less punitive than others percolating through the Lege, including plans to simply take over Austin's police force, or House Bill 1900 (by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Benbrook), which has no provision for taking de-policing plans to the voters, restricts all city revenue sources and not just property tax, and even allows aggrieved pro-police residents to pursue disannexation. It's unclear how the House, more moderate as a whole than Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's Senate, plans to proceed – sticking with Goldman's bill, getting on board with Huffman's, or something else. The Senate floor debate featured much harsh criticism of Huffman's bill from Democrats who ended up voting for it anyway, lest they appear to not "back the blue"; the final vote was 28-2, with only Sens. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, and Borris L. Miles, D-Houston, in opposition.

Should SB 23 become law in some form (and survive a court challenge), it could still pose only a muted threat to Austin, where moves to "reimagine public safety" have enjoyed near-unanimous Council support, including from members who faced down pro-cop challengers in last November's elections, and where newly named interim Police Chief Joe Chacon testified against SB 23, calling it "an overstep by the Legis­lature." Before the vote, Patrick made clear where he stood: "The city of Austin is the reason this bill is passing," he said. "Not to send a message, not to be political, but to be sure there's not another Austin."

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87th Texas Legislature, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, de-policing, House Bill 1900, Senate Bill 23, Joan Huffman, Craig Goldman, Joe Chacon

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