Friday, May 07, 2021

Five Observations and a Prediction: Why police budget hikes could become a thing of the past in Texas if HB 1900 becomes law

In no particular order, here are five observations and a prediction about a week filled with losses for the Texas criminal-justice reform movement at the Texas Legislature and in San Antonio and Austin.

#1: Policy fights now head to the courts

Every policy fight can and frequently does play out in an array of venues and the legislative process is only one of them. Some of the legislative losses this week are on topics - more restrictive detention policies from bail reform, limiting prosecutor discretion on new anti-homeless laws and arrested protesters, dictating home-rule-cities' budget prerogatives, etc. - that Grits expects to be litigated as soon as they're implemented. Some of it will stand, some of it won't. ¿Quien sabe? E.g., Austin changed its homeless arrest policy after federal court rulings deemed similar laws in California unconstitutional. Once it's changed back, those precedents will now be litigated here. Hell, if it's extended statewide, litigants can cherry pick which judge they want to bring it before. Right now, debates at the Texas Legislature on everything from bail to homelessness to abortion have become rather unhinged from and not particularly cognizant of nor in any way aligned with federal court rulings governing the same topics. Sign of the times, I guess: Picking needless fights on every front. I can't always tell if it's intentional or they just don't know any better. Little of both, probably.

#2: Ex Post Facto: Know the term

The "defund the police" legislation which will likely pass the Texas House today is a rather blatant example of an "ex post facto law" banned in Art. 1, Sec. 16 of the Texas Constitution and Art. 1, Sections 9 and 10 of the US Constitution. House Parliamentarians don't rule on constitutional issues (with few exceptions, they stick to interpreting the House rules), but IRL, courts do. And the originalist history of the ban on "ex post facto laws" is well established: While more commonly used today in terms of criminal law, it was created so that governments couldn't arbitrarily invalidate budgeting and spending decisions.

#3: The push to disconnect policing from policy makers

An oddity of both the anti-homeless legislation in the Texas Legislature and Prop B approved by Austin voters is the proposal to divorce law enforcement decision making from the policy making bodies that set their budgets and supposedly provide oversight. The state legislation would extend this to prosecutors, limiting prosecutor discretion in Class C cases against the homeless and creating a bizarre situation where prosecutors have more discretion to be lenient to murderers than the poorest of the poor. There are long-term implications for divorcing the armed agents of the state from the control of legitimate democratically-elected policymaking authorities: Examples are numerous, dating at least to the Roman legions' repeated usurpations of the Imperial Senate and various emperors in ancient times. That's more or less how your correspondent views the police-union cabals to whom legislators are kowtowing, and it's hard to see much good coming from disconnecting those folks from the constraints of civil authority.

#4: Why the folks shouting "Back the Blue" don't mind risking cops' lives

The most remarkable thing about this week was that MANY of the same legislators who've been crowing "Back the Blue" for months ignored widespread warnings from law enforcement to pass unlicensed-carry gun legislation. And I mean didn't give a damn: Lip service paid, then vote the other way on a party line, with cops telling them openly, in numbers, "this puts us at risk." Pairing that with the "defund the police" debate on the House floor, one witnessed legislators touting near the top of their lungs that cops deserve absolute deference, then in nearly the next breath insisting the cops were overstating the risks they faced because they were intimidated by some kind of woke, Big Government liberalism from the cities. It was bizarre, and only makes sense if one assumes the love of police is conditional on their political utility. Tbh, I always have, but this made it obvious and nearly inarguable.

#5: A craven betrayal

The word that keeps coming to Grits' mind for the Austin city council restarting cadet classes without demanding a reformed curriculum is "craven." They promised there'd be community participation in the process and then plowed forward without it. And while they added an amendment to the item requiring a report from the City Manager on the progress of curriculum change before the new class starts (June 7), the amendment created no process to halt the class if the curriculum isn't ready. That's because the council majority DOES NOT CARE ABOUT REFORMING THE ACADEMY. It was a promise several of them made when they were running for re-election. But now that they're safely back in their seats, having secured all the support they needed from grassroots reformers in their districts, they don't mind screwing over the Chas Moores and Meme Styles of the world: West Austin brings more votes. Adding insult to injury, most of the key, Austin police-reform leaders skipped the meeting at City Hall to show up at the Legislature and try to fight the "defund" bill, scheduled for the same day on the House floor. No good deed goes unpunished. This was a betrayal and your correspondent won't soon forget it.

Prediction: If "Anti-Defund the Police" bill passes, police budget hikes are a thing of the past

The Legislature gets to write the laws, but even they are not immune from the Law of Unintended Consequences.  I don't think legislators have considered the incentives they're putting in place in HB 1900 punishing cities that "defund" police department (by which in Austin's case they mean delaying cadet classes by one year). Going forward, cities that increase police spending can never again lower it. But they often need to do so. Now, cities will decline to spend more, knowing they won't be allowed to spend less. Bill authors even rejected amendments so that overtime for one-off special events - like a Super Bowl weekend in Houston - would be counted against them the following year. If I'm right about the new incentives facing city councils under this legislation, the result will be to suppress police spending instead of bolster it. I predict that if HB 1900 becomes law, when we look back five years from now the growth rate in police budgets will have flattened, not rallied.

Indeed, the most delicious irony may well come if HB 1900 ends up itself defunding the police! 

Wealthy communities without much police presence have for decades coveted caps on utility rates and property taxes. Some of them also want de-annexation (the recent Austin lakeside de-annexation dispute a case in point). They don't see police much and most of their thinking on this is based more on ideological and partisan predilections than a hard-nosed assessment of self interest.  HB 1900 could well create a "run on the bank" with voters at both ends of the spectrum showing up to defund the police, reallocate hundreds of millions of dollars, and trigger revenue caps and de-annexations that could change fundamentally how cities are constructed and managed in Texas.

Is that the intent of the legislation? No, the intent is to "own the libs." And the libs don't want to be "owned." Other than that, very few under the Pink Dome have thought through the implications of this legislation at all. And it shows.

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