Voters would have to approve police budget cuts under bill approved by Texas Senate

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The Texas Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would prevent local governments from cutting their law enforcement budgets without voter approval.

It was the Legislature’s most substantial move yet in a political war over police funding in Texas that was sparked last summer. The in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and fatal police shooting of Mike Ramos in Austin prompted protests against police brutality and racial injustice and strengthened calls to change policing practices, ultimately leading the city of Austin to cut its police budget.

Senate Bill 23, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would require cities or counties to hold an election before reducing police funding. Senators approved the legislation on a 28-2 vote with broad bipartisan support, despite numerous Democrats harshly criticizing the legislation as a political ploy.

“This sends a message to the citizens that we are going to back the blue,” Huffman said on the Senate floor. “That’s what this bill intends to do.”

The measure will now be sent to the more moderate — but still Republican-led — House, where its future is less certain.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has loudly supported legislation this year to stop cities from “defunding the police.” The phrase has become increasingly politicized in the last year, though its meaning can vary from shifting some city responsibilities away from police officers to complete abolition of policing.

Police reform advocates have opposed such bills filed in reaction to Austin’s budget decision. They argue that it would take away local government control and force costly elections. Many Democrats, including those that voted for SB 23 Tuesday, have also argued that cities aren’t seeking to “defund” police, but to rethink the role of police officers, taking steps to instead hire civilians to respond to mental health crises or enforce traffic violations.

“We do not support defunding the police, but we do believe in collaborative policing and giving local governments the ability to make the decision that is best for their community,” state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said last week.