Greg Abbott's Talk on Punishing Cities for Cutting Police Budgets Unlikely to Yield Legislative Action

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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a recent press event. - COURTESY PHOTO / OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR
  • Courtesy Photo / Office of the Governor
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a recent press event.
Gov. Greg Abbott this week amped up his threats to punish cities that cut police funding — rhetoric that may have strategic value during an election year but is unlikely to yield action by the Texas Legislature, political observers say.

"I think Abbott has the sense that talking about the coronavirus, talking about unemployment right now, those are losers," Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said. "But if he can shift the conversation to law and order, that's something that could have some benefit to Republican candidates ahead of November."



However, the Lege is unlikely to pick a fight with municipalities once the session gets underway in January, Jillson added. Lawmakers will simply be too busy scrambling to offset the massive revenue shortfalls created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They're going to have far bigger fiscal issues to deal with," he said.



On Thursday, after asking Texas candidates to sign a pledge to oppose police budget cuts, Abbott announced that he'll support legislation to strip annexation powers from cities and counties that cut funding for their police forces.

That threat comes in addition to another legislative proposal Abbott floated last month that would freeze the property tax rates of municipalities that take a scalpel to police budgets.

The governor's moves were prompted by the city of Austin's vote earlier this summer to cut roughly a third of its police budget. It redirected that money to social services including violence prevention programs.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff dismissed Abbott's pledge and other rhetoric as posturing. He defended the county's decision this week to eliminate some of its constable positions, pointing out that technology has made some of that work obsolete.

“It's a wonderful political statement by the governor, but it happens to be off-base,” Wolff said. ”I don't know of one city in Texas — or in the nation — that has defunded its police department.”

Even if Abbott pushes the issue during the upcoming legislative session, Jillson said Texas' changing political environment makes it hard for such measures to gain traction.

Democrats took back 12 Texas House seats in the 2018 election, and are poised to add to that total in November. Even if they can't win the nine additional seats needed to reclaim the body, their gains still make it harder for state GOP leaders to ram through controversial legislation.

"If you've a Republican and you've watched the Democrats retake 15 seats, 16 seats, maybe 17 seats in the House over the past two elections, you've got to think hard about whether you'll vote down the line with Abbott and your party's leadership," Jillson said.

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