The Austin City Council is playing politics with public safety. Now some are calling for the statehouse to step in.
In a bid to appease far-left radicals, City Hall last month cut millions from the Austin Police Department’s budget and redistributed the money to other social justice causes, such as easing abortion access ($100,000), boosting urban trails ($300,000), launching a mobile grocery store program ($400,000) and more. The cuts prompted one elated City Council member to roar: “We did it!!”
But not everyone is excited. In fact, many seem unnerved that public safety budgets are getting smaller when the city saw a notable increase in assaults last year.
Among those expressing alarm is Gov. Greg Abbott, who recently said on Twitter: “We can’t let Austin’s defunding & disrespect for law enforcement … endanger the public & invite chaos like in Portland and Seattle.” He appears ready to act, too.
Already, the governor has voiced support for freezing the property tax revenues of any city that defunds police. He also suggested stripping such cities of their annexation powers. Now he’s considering whether to back a state takeover of local law enforcement in big cities that put “insufficient municipal resources” toward policing. The merger of any police department with the Department of Public Safety would be funded through some combination of local sources — i.e. city sales taxes, property taxes and other revenue — and need not obligate state taxpayers.
While the proposal does not apply exclusively to Austin, it fits best here. The Capitol City has, undeniably, slashed its police department’s budget during a time of great civil unrest and even “riot(ing) on the Capitol grounds.” The state has an interest in preventing a public safety crisis, if for no other reason than the safety of its workforce, the preservation of its institutions and the continuation of its services to a statewide constituency.
Austin has a special relationship with the rest of Texas. In some sense, the city belongs to all Texans. Its place on the pedestal means the state has an obligation to guarantee law and order. It also means that Austin is highly visible, and a state takeover of APD might serve as a warning to other big cities contemplating their own plans to defund the police.
From a legal standpoint, there’s no question that the state can do this.
The city of Austin, like every other local government, is a creature of the state and subject to its authority. If the Legislature decides to assume the role of public safety provider and use local funding sources to pay for policing, then that’s within its purview.
None of this is to say that the state should take over the APD. Only that it’s plausible and possible. Whether it’s needed largely rests with City Hall.
The Austin City Council made a mistake by defunding the police to win the plaudits of a fringe few. Council members can make things right by restoring public safety funding in full. Such a move would almost certainly defuse any talk of a takeover. If, however, City Hall persists in politicizing public safety to the detriment of the state and its interests, then expect a big brouhaha next session.
What happens next is up to the city of Austin. What happens after that is up to everyone else.