A sheriff's patrol vehicle parked outside the Travis County Courthouse on March 22. Credit: Credit: Evan L'Roy / The Texas Tribune

The Texas House and Senate on Monday advanced two separate proposals that aim to stop the state’s most populous cities and counties from cutting law enforcement funding.

The House initially approved the Senate’s bill to require voter approval before a county could reduce its law enforcement budget – but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. About an hour later, the Senate passed the House’s legislation to financially punish cities with more than 250,000 people if they decreased their police department’s funding.

The bills are part of a Republican-led effort to protect law enforcement funding after civil rights advocates last year called on local governments to reduce what they spend on policing and to reform police behavior, leading Austin to cut its police budget. The demand for systemic change came in the wake of repeated law enforcement killings of Black and Hispanic people in Texas and around the country, including George Floyd’s murder last May.

If both bills become law, Texas’ most populous cities and counties will have substantially different obstacles to cutting law enforcement funding.

On Monday, the House tentatively approved state Sen. Joan Huffman’s Senate Bill 23 on an 86-57 vote after about two hours of passionate speeches and debate between the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress) and several House Democrats. When passed by the Senate, the Houston Republican’s election-triggering bill applied to all Texas cities and counties, but it was changed in the House State Affairs Committee to only apply to the most populous counties. It now complements the House bill, which instead targets large cities.

“Texans deserve to feel safe in their communities, and this bill guarantees that local voters have input in a critical decision,” Oliverson said on the House floor Monday.

The Texas House finally passed the bill on Tuesday on a 86-59 vote after more than two hours of proposed changes by Democrats, which almost all failed. An amendment by state Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) was accepted so as not to punish counties if their funds decrease because a law enforcement agency stops collecting money from civil asset forfeiture. The controversial policing practice allows police to take and keep a person’s cash and property without charging the person with a crime. HB 1900 will now be sent back for the Senate to either accept the changes or opt to negotiate on the chambers’ versions behind closed doors.

House Bill 1900, on the other hand, would prohibit police funding cuts outright in larger cities. Under the bill, if the governor’s office judged that a city cut its police budget, the state would siphon some sales taxes for state use and ban the city from increasing property taxes or utility fees. It would also forbid the city from further annexation and allow any areas annexed within the last 30 years to opt for de-annexation. The bill was authored by Republican state Reps. Craig Goldman, Will Metcalf, Greg Bonnen, and Angie Chen Button and Democratic state Rep. Richard Peña Raymond.

“The bill is designed to tell municipalities, ‘Do not defund the police.’ If you do, there are some serious consequences,” Huffman, who carried the bill in the Senate, told her colleagues Monday.

HB 1900 passed out of the Senate on a 22-4 vote, and now heads back to the House for approval or negotiations.

Supporters have deemed both the Senate and House bills as essential to protect public safety while homicide rates continue to rise in cities throughout the state and country. The bill’s opponents have knocked the bill as political pandering that blocks necessary police reforms. The term “defund the police” has become increasingly politicized, though its intent can range from activists seeking complete abolition to localities shifting police duties, like operating crime labs, into civilian roles.

“This is tyranny, this is an overreach in government,” said state Rep. Jarvis Johnson (D-Houston) in a speech against SB 23 Monday. “We have decided to take a couple of buzzwords and catchphrases to make partisanship and to divide this state and this country.”

In both chambers, Democrats have been skeptical of the population caps in place on the bills, arguing the legislations’ intent is only meant for the Republican-led state to control large, mostly liberal, cities and counties. State Sen. Nathan Johnson asked Huffman Monday what would happen under HB 1900 if a small town had seen a spike in crime but local officials decided to cut its law enforcement funds.

When Huffman replied that she’d “hope the citizens would elect new city council members,” the Dallas Democrat interjected.

“Bingo!” he said.

Opponents of the police funding bills have said the community’s decision to elect their local leaders is their key power over city council decisions on police budgets, not state laws.

Under SB 23, the 1 million cap would only apply to Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar, and Travis counties – and possibly Collin County once new census figures are released later this year. Several amendments proposed by Democrats failed Monday. State Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin) unsuccessfully tried to amend the bill to remove the population limitations.

“If we’re going to put these mandates on five counties, let’s put these expectations on every county,” she said. “If you truly believe that there is a viable role for the state of Texas to be doing this kind of intrusive management on how our local authorities are doing their job, then you should support this.”

State Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) suggested the cap may lead to lawsuits over the intent of the bill. Oliverson pushed back against the amendment, saying the problem was in large, urban counties. Johnson and state Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas) pushed back that the real problem was police brutality.

“The problem in my community isn’t the defund issue, the problem is policing in my community,” Crockett said.

Oliverson countered that, under this bill, the community could then vote to cut the police budget. But he later theorized that departments facing misconduct allegations should not face budget cuts, either.

“It may be that that’s a department that’s in need of better training,” he said.

Both pieces of legislation are directly in response to the city of Austin, where Mike Ramos was killed by police a month before Floyd. After a summer of unrest, the City Council responded by cutting its police budget. Almost all of the decrease came from an accounting shift that still allows traditional police duties to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. About 7%, or $31 million, was cut immediately and instead put toward other public services, like housing and mental health. Still, the decision brought immediate backlash from Republican state leaders, who have since rallied behind efforts to “back the blue” and stop efforts to “defund the police.”

Since Austin’s budget vote in August, the governor has strongly fought to maintain police funding while remaining largely silent on reforms to policing behavior or accountability. In February, Abbott made punishing cities that cut police funding an emergency issue for the 2021 Legislature.

Meanwhile, Texas’ George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform bill pushed by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, never made it past its first committee hearing.

Some standalone provisions from the bill had more success in both chambers, but the House’s police reform bills have since languished in the Senate, not having been given a hearing in Huffman’s committee as the Wednesday deadline for the chamber’s approval nears. The House bills would require Texas law enforcement agencies to implement more uniform and substantive disciplinary actions for officer misconduct, bar officers from arresting people for fine-only traffic offenses and require corroboration of undercover officer testimony in drug cases.

The Senate’s police reform bills, however, are more narrowly targeted and police union-approved. On Sunday, the House finally passed the Senate bill to require police officers to provide first aid to injured people and call for emergency services. This week, the House is set to hear the Senate measures to largely ban police chokeholds and require police to intervene if a fellow officer is using excessive force, but it’s unclear if they’ll come up on the floor before a procedural deadline Wednesday.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans – and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Jolie McCullough, The Texas Tribune

Jolie McCullough develops data interactives and news apps and reports on criminal justice issues for the Texas Tribune. She came to the Tribune in early 2015 from the Albuquerque Journal, where her work...