Senate committee waters down bill to preempt ‘Defund the Police’ Efforts

Proposal would now apply to fewer police department budget cuts

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)

A Senate committee significantly watered down legislation that would make it harder for municipalities to “defund the police” in their communities. 

The bill allows the legislature’s joint budget committee to withhold construction dollars and other funding from local governments who substantially cut their law enforcement budgets. The original proposal, sponsored by Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, would have allowed lawmakers to punish municipalities for at least a 10 percent cut to their police departments. But the Senate Finance Committee insisted that threshold grow to 25 percent Wednesday. 

A previous amendment made by the House also blocks the lawmakers from cutting funding to municipalities who reduce law enforcement funding because of a drop in tax revenue — making it unclear what  impact, if any, the bill will have at this point.

Even with the changes that weaken the bill, the Senate Finance Committee only narrowly passed the legislation on a 5-4 vote — and only after Harris committed to not lowering the threshold for budget cuts from 25 percent.

Senators expressed concern that state legislators are dictating to local governments how they have to manage their money through the legislation. “We’re still telling them what to do,” said Sen. Greg Tarver, D-Shreveport, who voted against the bill.  

The Louisiana Municipal Association opposed the legislation. The organization said it would cause logistical difficulties, particularly for smaller governments.

Sen. Heather Cloud, a Republican, supported Harris’ bill, but said it was also fairly routine for small towns to cut their police budgets by 10 percent. Cloud is the former mayor of Turkey Creek, a town of a few hundred people. She offered the amendment to raise the threshold to 25 percent during the hearing.

Harris insisted he is pushing the legislation because he has seen efforts to “defund the police” in large cities elsewhere in the country — like Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland and Austin. But he has not been able to identify a local government in Louisiana that is discussing a “defund the police” policy.

That’s led some critics to say that Harris’ bill is a solution in search of a problem. In a previous hearing, Tarver implied that Harris might only be sponsoring the legislation because he wants media attention for his run  for Congress. Harris is on the Nov 3rd ballot for the 5th Congressional District. 

Most “Defund the police” efforts call for money to be shifted from law enforcement agencies to social service programs who treat people struggling with addiction and mental health challenges. It’s become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matters movement, especially after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, a black man and woman who were killed by police in Minnesota and Kentucky earlier this year.