Abbott unveils new plan to punish cities that cut police spending - News - Austin American-Statesman - Austin, TX

Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at a news conference Thursday outlining a new idea to punish cities that cut police spending. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Gov. Greg Abbott signs a “Texas Backs the Blue Pledge” at the Austin Police Association’s headquarters on Thursday. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

A “Texas Backs the Blue Pledge” was signed by Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, and others at the Austin police union’s headquarters Thursday. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

On the heels of the Austin City Council's move to cut police spending, Gov. Greg Abbott and other state leaders unveiled a proposal Thursday that would strip cities of annexation powers if local officials cut police department budgets.

"Cities that defund their police departments will forever lose their annexation powers, and any areas and any residents that have ever been annexed by that city in the past will have the power to vote to disannex them from the city," Abbott said in a news conference at the Austin Police Association headquarters.

It's the second legislative proposal by the governor to put pressure on cities that move to reduce police spending. Last month, Abbott proposed to withhold property tax revenue growth from local governments.

The City Council last month voted to cut $21.5 million from the Police Department, largely by canceling three cadet classes, with the potential to shift $129 million in police funding toward social service programs and other city departments to take over mental health, addiction and other responses that typically fall to police.

"Combined together, all of these proposals will make it basically financially impossible to defund law enforcement," Abbott said. "It should leave Austin with no choice but to restore the cuts that they've already made to law enforcement."

The Republican-controlled Legislature, which reconvenes in January, would have to approve the proposals.

State law allows a city to annex the equivalent of up to 10% of its incorporated land from its extraterritorial jurisdiction, the 5-mile area that surrounds city limits.

In 2017, the Legislature voted to limit large cities' annexation powers, forcing them to receive voter approval before annexing new areas.

Abbott's pledge

Abbott's news conference came one day after calling on political candidates to sign his "Back the Blue" pledge against cities working "to defund and dismantle police departments."

Austin Mayor Steve Adler called the pledge "political theater intended to scare and distract us from important public safety conversations."

"To be clear — Austin City leaders have neither defunded the police department nor support doing so," Adler said in a statement. "Austin is the safest big city in Texas and among the few safest in the country. We'll continue to make an already safe city even safer and, importantly, safer for everyone."

Abbott also said last week that he is considering a proposal that would bring Austin police under the control of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The governor was joined Thursday by Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Lake Jackson, and state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

They all signed the pledge in the Thursday news conference. Abbott and Paxton aren't on the ballot this year, and Bonnen isn't seeking reelection after a political scandal last year.

"Cities must prioritize public safety," Abbott said. "The last thing they should do is defund law enforcement, and yet, that is exactly what the city of Austin has done and is what the Dallas City Council voted to do in announcing its own defunding scheme last night. Other cities in Texas may be considering the same thing."

Abbott spokesman John Wittman said nearly 100 of 181 state lawmakers have signed the pledge and the office received more than 35,000 signatures of support.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and some Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation also signed on. It's not clear if any Democrats have joined the effort.

READ MORE: Abbott unveils 'Back the Blue' pledge for candidates

Democratic response

Democratic leaders dismissed the initiative as a distraction, saying they knew of no legislators or candidates who support defunding the police.

And the Texas Democratic Party on Thursday took aim at the pledge, unveiling its own "Texas First Pledge."

The six-point pledge takes aim at Paxton's challenge to the Affordable Care Act, Abbott's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and President Donald Trump's recent reported comments disparaging service members. It promises to, among other things, defend Texans with preexisting conditions, follow recommendations from public health experts on the pandemic and "defend the brave Americans who served in our armed forces by condemning anyone who calls them 'suckers' and losers.'"

Manny Garcia, the Texas Democratic Party's executive director, called Abbott's pledge a "political stunt" to distract from the coronavirus ahead of the November election.

"Greg Abbott knows Texans are fed up with his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, so he tries a tired old trick to change the subject and manufacture fear," Garcia said in a statement. "He's desperate to change the narrative, so reporters stop asking him about his failure to protect Texans from COVID-19. Abbott thinks Texans will be suckers for it. That is how little he thinks of all of us."

More than 13,000 Texans have died from the coronavirus, and roughly 650,000 Texans have been infected since March. The numbers of cases and those being treated in hospitals increased dramatically after Abbott allowed a range of businesses to reopen in May. He later shut down bars, further limited restaurant capacity and required masks to be worn in public. The pace of new cases and deaths has dropped in recent weeks.

The Texas House Democratic Caucus has advised Democrats that they should not sign the governor's "Back the Blue" pledge.

The caucus released its own "Texas Promise" pledge, a four-point pledge, which included the line: "I do not support defunding the police."