Updated at 4:59 p.m.: to include Abbott’s comments on a proposal to fold Austin’s police department into the Texas Department of Public Safety.
AUSTIN — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday proposed punishing cities that “defund” the police by yanking their power of annexation — and letting recently annexed residents vote to be carved out of the cities.
At a news conference, the Republican governor said 35,000 people have signed his “Texas Backs the Blue Pledge,” which highlights a few cities’ rethinking of their police budgets.
Democrats, though, accused Abbott of trying to “distract away from his failed coronavirus response.”
Abbott, who last month proposed freezing property taxes of cities that defund or dismantle their police departments, was adding a new threat to local autonomy.
Under the new plan, if a city has annexed additional land in the past three decades, it would trigger two penalties if it reduces police funding: Recently annexed residents could vote to leave, and the city could no longer annex new territory.
Abbott is taking aim at the push by some liberal activists to change policing, partly by shifting mental health and some other functions away from police departments to allow for shrinking their funding.
“We cannot allow this to happen in Texas,” he said, flanked by about a dozen peace officers at the headquarters of the Austin Police Association.
“The last thing they should do is defund law enforcement,” said Abbott, who criticized recent actions by city councils in Austin and Dallas.
The terms he used, “defund and dismantle the police,” though, are imprecise, and most Texas Democrats say they’re not for abolishing or cutting police department budgets.
Abbott was asked about a third proposal that recently surfaced. It calls for punishing any Texas city with a population of 1 million or more and fewer than two sworn police officers per 1,000 residents — a bracket that fits Austin — by having its police force folded into the Texas Department of Public Safety.
The plan, sent to Abbott by former state House members and parliamentarians Terry Keel, R-Austin, and Ron Wilson, D-Houston, would also commandeer a portion of sales tax revenue that’s usually sent to the city. That money would pay for operating the transplanted local force under a new “special municipal police department division” at DPS.
“That is an issue that we are still looking at,” Abbott said. “It has some layers of complexity … but it remains an option.”
On Thursday, the Texas Democratic Party urged state residents to sign a “Texas First Pledge” that urges opposition to lawsuits and other efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s guarantee of health coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. The Democrats’ counter-pledge also urges leaders to heed the advice of public health experts in combating the COVID-19 pandemic, provide further unemployment benefits, protect public schools and combat racism.
Abbott’s “fear-mongering, photo-op of a press conference” was “a weak attempt to try to look tough in front of the cameras” by a chief executive who’s bungled the virus outbreak, costing nearly 14,000 Texans their lives, state Democratic Party chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a written statement.
Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, urged Democrats not to sign Abbott’s pledge. He offered a “Texas Promise Pledge” that was slightly different from the one the state Democratic Party proposed.
Turner’s pledge led off with a promise “to invest in our future by opposing cuts to public education,” which could be difficult in next year’s session if the pandemic-driven recession deepens. It then waved at health care and revamping a “criminal justice system that has failed Sandra Bland, Botham Jean and so many others,” before ending with:
“I do not support defunding the police.”
We will not support a political pledge to @GovAbbott who has put so many lives at risk by mismanaging COVID-19, refusing to expand Medicaid and by refusing to take action on gun violence or racial injustice.
We’ll make Texans a better promise — a promise for solutions.#txlege pic.twitter.com/Ru3VnwKSUx— Texas House Democratic Caucus (@TexasHDC) September 10, 2020
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who appeared with Abbott, said that “the silent majority supports law enforcement.”
Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, said “it’s a sad day” when officers “have more fear of doing their job than criminals do of committing crime.”
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was attending another police-related event in Houston and couldn’t make the Austin news conference, Abbott said.
Kenneth Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, urged elected officials to sign Abbott’s pledge.
“It shows your weak personality if you don’t sign this,” Casaday said.
For Abbott’s Texas Backs the Blue pledge, his campaign website included a printable sheet visitors could sign to vow to oppose defund-the-police proposals.
While the governor in a release on Wednesday urged supporters to post their signed copies on social media at 2 p.m. Thursday, many GOP politicians immediately did so late Wednesday.
Before taking questions at his Thursday news conference, Abbott, Bonnen, Paxton and the police officials on hand stood in line and signed a blown-up poster of the pledge that rested on an easel.