Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Spurious arguments against ATX budget cuts show backlash weaker than expected

Grits certainly expected a backlash, but somehow I didn't anticipate the reaction to Austin's police budget cuts and transfers to be so, well, stupid.

As discussed the other day, the Austin City Council cut $21 million out of a $440 million budget, or less than 5%. They transferred several functions, including the crime lab and the Internal Affairs division, out of the department. And they created a process to evaluate nearly $50 million in additional police functions that may still be discontinued, adjusted, or transferred to other agencies.

The group Voices of Austin - part of the baby-boomer backlash against reform this blog has discussed before - issued a mass email pretending all the items on the transfer and re-evaluate list were simply being immediately cut. Yes, it would be irresponsible if the City Council had simply eliminated the city's crime lab or its 911-call center. But that didn't happen. So what should we take from that assessment except that VoA thinks Austinites are ignorant enough to fall for blatant lies and craven demagoguery?

Some GOP critics, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Chuck Devore, want to pretend that $100,000 in transportation services to abortion clinics in a different part of the budget (this is Austin, after all) discredits adjustments to the police budget. Certainly, if you're the type of person for whom the abortion battles are the end-all-be-all of politics, and you already consider yourself pro-life, you won't like that $100,000 expenditure. But it's a tiny fraction of the more than $1 billion city budget and for all intents and purposes, unrelated to the policing debate.

Devore goes on to complain that $6.5 million of the reinvestment funds will go to house homeless people, then pivots to launch an embittered screed against homeless folks living on the streets:

downtown Austin has become like a ghost town due to COVID, as white-collar professionals do much of their work remotely, only making quick trips into the city for key meetings. This has left Austin’s burgeoning homeless population short on people to ask for money. The result is increasingly dystopian, as the homeless frequently outnumber office workers on the sidewalk—with the latter trying to find a place to eat that’s still open or quickly making their way to the parking garage, while the former call after them for drug and alcohol money.
To the extent that's true (and it's in fact quite exaggerated), Grits would think one would want homeless people housed elsewhere to provide these office workers some relief. But somehow, freeing up $6.5 million to confront exactly the problem he's complaining about is a bad thing. Go figure.

At this point, critics are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I'm guessing, in the state's most liberal city, the abortion attacks won't draw the sort of widespread ire for which the naysayers are hoping. And the homelessness fight in this town is over. Devore's and VoA's allies at the local GOP failed to get enough signatures for their much-ballyhooed ballot initiative, and recent polling indicates a plurality of Austinites (48-40) think the city council is moving the city in the right direction.

Here's the reality these critics failed to confront. Unlike in, say, Seattle, Austin's new budget does not lay off a single officer. It delays new cadet classes until a just-launched evaluation of the curriculum at the police academy can be completed and changes implemented. The problems at the academy are real and significant; there's no way they'll complete the curriculum revamping in time to hold a new cadet class soon, anyway. All the city council did was acknowledge that fact and adjust the budget accordingly. 

In recent years, the department has asked the council to budget scores of new positions they knew they couldn't fill because cadet classes kept coming up short. So there were already about 150 unfilled positions at the department, and the city council declined to add another 30 empty slots to mix. They're not eliminating officers, though the department may downsize slightly via attrition. 

If this had been another city department like Public Works, eliminating vacant positions which had gone unfilled for years with little prospect for filling them would be entirely uncontroversial.

Oddly, Devore's blog post included a graphic that, to me, emphasizes the extent to which crime rates  and force size are at most only loosely related:

I can't vouch for these numbers, but let's assume they're correct: Houston and Dallas have quite a few more officers per 100,000 people than Austin. Do you think they'd be interested in swapping crime rates?

The fact is, many different elements combine to determine crime rates and the role of the police isn't as big a factor as the union and their champions would like to pretend. The reasons Austin is safer than Houston have little to do with policing (our last chief is now their chief) and much more to do with economic and cultural factors with which law enforcement has little involvement.

The total cut to APD's budget comes to less than 5%, with no layoffs. By contrast, Texas' Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House recently ordered all state agencies to slash 5% from their budgets, as happens nearly every time revenue comes up short. Those agencies are told to make up the difference by trimming fat and a reducing inefficiencies. But when the city of Austin does the same thing at the police department, the sky is falling and all the fiscal conservatives are opposed to budget cutting. Somehow, it doesn't seem credible.

Despite all the weeping and gnashing of teeth, in the scheme of things the unremittingly stupid nature of the backlash is good news. I expected it to be more substantive and less whiny. And it would be, if the critics had valid arguments to lean on. It's pretty clear they don't.


Gadfly said...

Not so fast on "state's most liberal city." Going by R vs D voting (at the county level, El Paso County is more "blue" than Travis), and noting that there's a lot more working class-type, FDR/New Deal-type, liberals out there, there's a very good argument for that award going to ...

The city that many Texans kind of forget is in Texas ...

The city that "really" should be part of New Mexico.

We're talking El Paso, of course.

(NM politically wouldn't want it because it would overturn the Duke City-Santa Fe political power axis, but .. it should be part of New Mexico. Pre-1848 culture and trade, pre-Oñate Indian culture and trade, all say so.)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps "the Central Time Zone's most liberal (US) city"? Minneapolis is probably the competition there.

Gadfly said...

There we go!

Speaking as someone who grew up in the Land of Enchantment, I'd love El Paso to come over. Many residents, if they think of how much the state shortchanges them on things like regional office of state agencies, if they thought harder, might want to move.

Anonymous said...

It always baffles me that politicians like Greg Abbott and other Repugs are all about "Christian values" when it comes to treating women like chattels who don't own their own bodies, but that they hate, just hate, the homeless as much as they do. Not a shred of compassion for people in terrible circumstances, barely a token gesture toward helping the homeless get out of their predicament. I'm a rip-roaring atheist but I am 100% confident that if Jesus came back (and wasn't arrested as a Black Lives Matter protestor) he would be with the poor souls living in tents in the gritty shade of the freeway bridges of 1-35 and 183 in central Austin.

Anonymous said...

We ran a skip company over in Austin and were shocked when we heard about these cuts.

What are they thinking? Honestly!!