GOP lawmakers are once again attacking local communities like Harris County and Austin for daring to pursue local policies that address local concerns. They are interfering with our efforts to tackle homelessness, support mothers fleeing domestic violence, and address the public and mental health crisis amplified by the pandemic.
The Texas Capitol building is seen in the Austin skyline in this 2019 file photo. GOP lawmakers are attacking Austin, Harris County and local communities for exerting local budget control, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis write. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]
By way of several local budget control bills, our state officials are threatening to pull state funding to critical social services, turn local police departments into state-controlled law enforcement agencies, and starve Texas towns and cities of their tax revenue.
This slate of punitive bills making their way through the Texas Legislature is a direct response to tens of thousands of Texans demanding their local officials affirm that Black Lives Matter after the killing of George Floyd. Our state officials want to punish not just local communities, but the Black and brown Texans harmed most by our systems of mass incarceration and policing. These bills send a chilling message.
In Austin, after years of hearing concerns from our community and looking at the data, it was clear that our current systems of policing were not going to address root causes like housing insecurity and poverty. It wasn’t until the death of Mike Ramos, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the subsequent calls, emails, and testimony from tens of thousands of Austinites, that our city council made the bold decision to reimagine public safety in our city. We used a collaborative process to examine our outdated system of over-policing and explore alternatives in collaboration with our community. Because we were able to reallocate money from the police budget, we are now able to provide increased services to those experiencing homelessness, hire more mental health first responders, and invest in substance use care.
In Harris County, we took our residents’ demand for change seriously, not only because we serve a population of more than 4.7 million, but also because as the hometown of George Floyd, we feel a responsibility to honor his memory with action. Our jail population is reaching overcrowded levels, and those incarcerated are disproportionately people of color. Almost half of people detained at the Harris County Jail are Black, even though only around 20% of the overall Harris County population is Black. Republican state legislators may be comfortable with these statistics, but we know that Harris County is not.
Safe, healthy, and thriving communities are ones that invest in education and public health while addressing poverty; but this legislation would preempt these investments. This would prevent us from enacting innovative programs like Holistic Alternative Responder Teams, which would send first responders equipped to handle non-emergency medical and mental and behavioral health issues, substance use, people experiencing homelessness, and other situations that do not threaten public safety.
In Austin, Harris County and all over Texas, we know that Black and Brown communities are over-policed and disproportionately affected by the justice system. That is a fact. That’s why we must invest in the resources our communities need to address mental illness, homelessness, and poverty rather than criminalizing it. We will never be able to solve the issue of mass incarceration, of people losing their lives to police brutality, or of injustice in our legal system unless we move dollars away from locking up the poor and the sick and move those dollars to supporting our communities.
If state officials truly cared about some of the values they talk about so often – from freedom and authority for communities to make their own decisions to limited government interference from the Capitol – they would be eager to protect the decision-making powers of local governments. Their refusal to do so should send a very clear message to Texans about their true values.
Casar and Ellis are members of Local Progress Texas.