Texas county accused of violating state defunding police law
HOUSTON (AP) — Texas officials have accused the state’s most populous county of defunding some of its law enforcement agencies in violation of a new law that prevents such funding cuts.
In a letter sent on Monday, Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar alleged leaders in Harris County, where Houston is located, reduced funding for the offices of its constables in the current fiscal year and would again reduce funding next year.
Harris County officials pushed back against the claims they were defunding law enforcement, saying they have actually increased funding for law enforcement, proposing a budget for the next fiscal year that would allocate $1.4 billion for justice and safety, which is 75% of the county’s budget and the most ever allocated by the county for public safety.
Hegar accused the county of ending a policy that would have let the constables’ offices automatically rollover unspent departmental funds from one fiscal year to the next, resulting in a loss of more than $3 million. He also accused the county of reducing funding for the constables by up to $12 million for the 2022-23 fiscal year.
Constables and their deputies are licensed peace officers who have the same powers as regular police officers but also have the added responsibility of civil law enforcement.
“Texans depend on law enforcement agencies every day and consistent budgetary support for these agencies is more important than ever,” Hegar wrote in his letter.
Last year, the Texas Legislature passed several bills aimed at stopping cities from defunding the police. The push to pass the new laws by state Republicans came after Austin’s city council in August 2020 shifted police funding to social services following moves of other cities in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd.
Under the new law, any reduction of law enforcement budgets requires voter approval. If voter approval is not sought and a county proceeds with such a budget reduction, a county’s property tax revenue — the main funding source for local government services including schools, roads and law enforcement — will be frozen.
“The dangerous actions taken by (Harris County) Judge Lina Hidalgo and Harris County represent a brazen disregard for the safety and security of the Texans they are sworn to protect,” Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.
The new law impacts counties with populations over 1 million. Texas has six counties with populations that large and four of the six, including Harris County, are led by Democrats.
Harris County leaders said Tuesday if Hegar’s finding goes through, the county would be forced to reduce funding for law enforcement, including the constables, by more than $100 million because it would not be able to approve its new budget for next year and would have to revert to the prior year’s budget, which doesn’t have additional money to increase funding of law enforcement.
“I have already made clear, in response to repeated false accusations of ‘defunding,’ that Harris County has only increased funding for law enforcement since I have been in office,” Hidalgo, Harris County’s top elected official, said in a statement, adding that the constables’ budgets have increased by over 17% since 2019.
During a meeting Tuesday, Harris County commissioners said they planned to speak with Hegar to see if both sides could resolve the issue.
Funding of law enforcement in Harris County has been a hotly debated issue in recent months with many residents, victims’ advocate groups and others criticizing county leaders over a rise in violent crime during the pandemic and what they believe has been a lack of sufficient law enforcement resources to tackle the problem. Crime has been one of the main issues Hidalgo has faced as she heads into a tough re-election bid in November.
Many cities and counties across the country have faced similar struggles with violent crime during the pandemic. Many police departments are also dealing with officers — worn out by the pandemic or disillusioned over the calls to divest from policing that followed Floyd’s murder — quitting or retiring faster than they can be replaced.