One thing that the Prop B results exposed was that there is a lot of unoccupied ground in the political middle. By that I specifically mean between the majority of citizens and the Austin City Council, and often between the majority of citizens and the more active and vocal citizens from whom elected officials hear the most. In Austin the middle is more the left-center by national standards, but nonetheless Prop B exposed a gap there. Prop B of course was the reinstatement of the camping ban that the City Council repealed in June 2019 (Council Members Kathie Tovo and Alison Alter voting no). A citizen petition put Prop B on the May 1 ballot.
As detailed in an article last week, many areas that are normally Democratic strongholds voted for Prop B, that is to reinstate the camping ban. Other largely Democratic areas delivered majorities against Prop B. The margins, however, were mostly far smaller than those normally delivered for progressive causes and candidates.
Another issue featuring a vast middle popped up on the Council agenda five days after the election. That was the question of whether to fund a new cadet class for the Austin Police Department (APD). The last one started in February 2020. The Council zeroed out funding for cadet classes as part of its controversial police budget cuts last summer, while also demanding reform at the Academy.
This time around the Council approved funding for a new cadet class with nine members voting in favor, only Council Member Greg Casar voting no, and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper Madison abstaining. That’s one more yes vote than in a preliminary vote in March, on a “blueprint” of what it would take for Council to fund the class. On that vote Council Member Vanessa Fuentes joined Harper Madison in abstaining.
The camping issue and the Council’s unanimous police budget cuts in August 2020 are the two most controversial issues on which the Council (pre-Vanessa Fuentes and Mackenzie Kelly) took what many constituents considered extreme stands. Both actions were taken at the behest of local activists. On the police budget cuts, that included heeding activists’ calls to defund of the police.
Austin voters reeled the Council back in on the camping issue and the Council majority themselves eased back a bit from the edge by approving the cadet class.
There’s another group of elected officials in town right now, however, who are also taking some extreme positions. They are called the Texas Legislature and the majority of them are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from the Austin City Council. Here are just a few examples of Republican bills in the legislature, which have a real chance of passing:
- Republican majorities in both the Texas House and Senate are pushing bills that would make it even harder to vote in Texas — especially in big cities where Democrats hold majorities;
- Republicans in the Legislature also want to drop requirements for Texans to register to carry a concealed handgun;
- And, they are pursuing cruel and dangerous legislation aimed at transgender youth.
More specific to our topic here, there are bills in both the House and Senate that would hobble Austin city government’s authority over its own police department. The House bill would also punish the City in other seriously damaging ways.
Just as promised by Governor Greg Abbott, these bills are retaliation for the Austin Council’s budget cuts to APD last summer.
Governor Greg Abbott
House Bill 1900 (HB 1900) would grant the Governor, or the “Criminal Justice Division” of the Governor’s Office, the power to declare cities with a population over 250,000 a “defunding municipality,” if a City reduces their police department budget below that of either of the two preceding years. The bill has passed the House and is pending in the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.
HB 1900 would would put in place a set of draconian measures once a city is declared a “defunding municipality.” For one, the City would be forbidden to annex anymore. Even more damaging and potentially anarchic, a “defunding municipality” would be required to set an election to give all areas annexed in the last 30 years the choice of whether to disannex. In Austin that would include vast areas of the Northwest stretching to Anderson Mill, Circle C in the southwest over the Barton Springs Zone, and many other neighborhoods.
To regain annexation powers a City would have to reverse its police budget cuts. Then the City would have to wait ten years to regain annexation powers. In the case of areas that voted to disannex themselves, the City would have to restore its police budget cuts, then wait ten years before gaining the power to re-annex.
A “defunding municipality” would also be prohibited from setting the property tax higher than what it takes to bring in the same amount of revenue as the previous year — much more draconian than the property tax legislation passed in earlier sessions of the Legislature. Additionally, the Texas Comptroller’s Office, which collects sales taxes for both the state and cities, would have to withhold an amount from sales taxes equal to what the state spent on public safety in a “defunding municipality” during the previous year. That calculation would be done by the Criminal Justice Division of the Governor’s office. This aligns neatly with Governor Greg Abbott’s vow to have Department of Public Safety troopers perform more duties in Austin.
Municipal utilities are targeted as well. City owned utilities like Austin Water and Austin Energy would not be able to raise rates, and thus would be largely frozen in their expenditures.
The bill goes back two budget years, meaning Austin can’t get out of the woods by approving a new budget before the law takes effect.
HB 1900 received significant Democratic support. According to the Austin Bulldog, which did a deep dive story on the issue, Democratic support particularly emanated from Hispanic representatives from South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, where Republicans have made gains in recent elections. In the Bulldog’s analysis, legislators in that region “increasingly appear wary of falling into a GOP trap by opposing so-called ‘Back the Blue’ legislation.” The most vocal Democrat in support of HB 1900 was Richard Peña Raymond of Laredo, but the Bulldog reported that he “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).”
The Bulldog additionally reported that Representative Senfronia Thompson of Houston, the longest-serving House Democrat, also voted for HB 1900. It is doubtful that Thompson is worried about a challenge from the right in her district.
After passage the House bill was sent across the Capitol to the Senate Jurisprudence Committee.
Meanwhile, the Senate passed a bill of its own (SB 23) that is not quite as outrageous. It requires an election before a City can cut its police budget. The House could potentially pass that bill instead of HB 1900, but that is uncertain. The House State Affairs Committee approved a version of SB 23 on Monday and it was sent to the Calendars Committee — the powerful committee that schedules bills for a vote on the House floor.
The best hope for Austin, and other cities affected by the proposed legislation, is that the bills get killed in committee by procedural challenges and/or technicalities — or other forms of insider maneuvering.
To divert briefly for a personal aside, in earlier years when I first began to understand that the Texas Legislature is structured in a way to make it extremely difficult to pass bills, and to provide multiple opportunities to kill bills on technicalities, I thought that was a ridiculous system. After several decades, however, of observing what gets proposed in the Texas Legislature, I think the system borders on being a work of genius (perhaps even divinely inspired), created back in the days of yore.
With that said, there’s no guarantee that the system will save Austin this time. If either bill passes, the next likely step is looking for legal vulnerabilities in the bill, especially if HB 1900 were to pass.
It didn’t necessarily have to be this way. With a slightly different and less hubristic approach, maybe with a little mayoral leadership, the Council might have been able to bring needed reforms to APD and gradually reallocate portions of the APD budget to social services, while staying off the legislative radar. We will never know.
One thing that is for certain is that there remains a lot of middle ground out there. In our next installment we’ll take a closer look at that and look in on a few members of the vast middle addressing the City Council when they took up the cadet class item.
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