Louisiana House passes bill that would punish jurisdictions that cut their police budgets

Bill is a counteroffensive to ‘Defund the police’ rallying cry

Law enforcement hold a line on Aug. 25, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin. As the city declared a state of emergency curfew, a third night of civil unrest occurred after the shooting of Jacob Blake, 29, on Aug. 23. Video shot of the incident appears to show Blake shot multiple times in the back by Wisconsin police officers while attempting to enter the drivers side of a vehicle. (Photo by Brandon Bell / Getty Images)

The Louisiana House passed two bills Monday that will punish municipalities and parishes that cut the budgets of their police departments by more than 10 percent in a year. The bills, a response to a national call from anti-police brutality protesters to “Defund the police,” will give the state the option to significantly reduce the revenue those jurisdictions get. House Bill 38, by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandrida, would give the state the right to deny capital outlay funding to those jurisdictions, and HB 67, by Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, would give the state the right to deny those jurisdictions sales tax revenue.

Harris’ bill passed the chamber with a 61-26 vote after being amended to allow local governments to cut police budgets by more than 10 percent if they experience an overall decrease in tax collections. Crews’ bill passed 63-23.  Both bills move on to the Senate.

“It’s simple, folks, when you defund the police, your crime rate soars,” Rep. Harris said on the House floor. 

After Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville, Ky., police and George Floyd was killed by an officer in Minneapolis, “Defund the police!” became a rallying cry for anti-police brutality activists who seek to force change in police departments across the country.  The phrase has different meanings to different supporters.  To some it means diverting money away from police departments to social service agencies to help people and communities that are in distress. To others it means diverting those funds to social services but also abolishing police departments altogether.

At an Oct. 5 House Appropriations Committee meeting, Harris mentioned efforts in Austin, Texas, and Seattle  to “defund the police” but admitted he wasn’t aware of a similar attempt inside Louisiana. He mentioned student activists at Tulane University have been pushing to defund the school’s campus police. Because Tulane is a private university, Harris’ bill wouldn’t apply even if the university were to decide to cut its police budget.

 Rep. Ted James, D- Baton Rouge, said the Louisiana Legislature should be focused on improving the police and not protecting the budgets of police departments. James was part of an effort during the first special session that led to the creation of the Police Training, Screening, and De-escalation Task Force. James said Monday that Harris’ bill could hurt police budgets further. If a local government chooses to defund their police budget while this bill is a law, James said, then that law would just cut that local government’s police budget even further because the state would take away more money.

Rep. Mandie Landry, D- New Orleans,  said Harris is touting this bill to attract attention as he runs for U.S. Congress in Louisiana’s Fifth Congressional District, and pointing out that he touts the bill on his campaign website.  Harris said it should be on his website. “I want people to support it. I want people to know that we’re doing these types of bills, and know that we’re protecting the public safety of Louisiana and making sure that some radicals may not try to defund their police department.”

Landry argued that Harris’ bill unfairly makes decisions at the state level that local jurisdictions ought to make and Rep. Dustin Miller, D-St. Landry, said Harris himself voted to cut the budget for the Louisiana State Police in a House Appropriations Committee vote in 2016. “Do you not think local government should decide where their money goes?” Landy asked. Harris said he believed the state intervention is justified when there’s “such an astronomical increase in crime when you defund police departments.”

Harris said homicides are up 50 percent in Austin, Texas, since it cut its police budget by a third. However, the Austin City Council didn’t vote for that budget reduction until August 13, and the cut applies to fiscal year 2021.

It is true that there have been more murders in Austin this year than last year,  but murders are up across the country. However, because there are relatively few murders in Austin compared to Louisiana’s major cities, it’s also true a single digit increase in the number of murders leads to a huge percentage jump. 

At the end of June 2020, Austin had recorded 23 homicides, nine more than the city recorded during the first six months of 2019. At the end of August, the city had experienced 10 more homicides than it had during the first eight months of the previous year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that university police departments would also be punished for cutting their budgets, but that provision was removed during the debate on the House floor.