State of Texas: Defunding debate hits the campaign trail

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – Gov. Greg Abbott announced another legislative proposal Thursday in an attempt to thwart cities from taking steps to “defund police.”

Abbott explained that his latest plan would mean cities that defund police departments “will forever lose their annexation powers, & any areas and any residents that have ever been annexed by that city in the past will have the power to dis-annex them from the city.”

He added that this would leave Austin in particular “no choice” but to restore funding to its police department. He also used the event to call on leaders and those living in the state to sign a pledge to “Back the Blue.”

When asked how he defines “defunding,” Abbott would not offer an answer, instead saying that will be up to the state legislature to determine.

In mid-August, the governor proposed legislation that would freeze property tax increases for cities that move funding from their police department. The proposal came after Austin City Council decided to transition $150 million from the Austin Police Department over the next year. About $20 million of that would be immediately reallocated to other areas related to public health and safety.

Mayor Steve Adler released the following statement Thursday afternoon not long after the governor’s news conference ended:

“To be clear – Austin City leaders have neither defunded the police department nor support doing so. I’m unaware of any elected official who believes differently. The Governor’s pledge is political theatre intended to scare and distract us from important public safety conversations about opening our children’s schools and saving lives during the pandemic or whether police should be mental health first responders and social workers. 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. As we get closer to November, expect more distractions that intend to divide rather than unite.”

The governor is also asking people to sign the pledge on his campaign website, then post about it on social media on Thursday. He also plans to hold a press conference that day to sign the pledge himself, alongside other state leaders.

“Some cities in Texas want to defund and dismantle police departments in our state,” he said in a video posted to Twitter. “This reckless action invites crime into our communities and it threatens the safety of all Texans including law enforcement officers in our families.”

The pledge says those who sign both support law enforcement and oppose defunding departments.

“I sign this Texas Backs the Blue Pledge to oppose any efforts to defund the police and to show my support for the brave law enforcement officers who risk their lives to protect and serve. Defunding our police departments would invite crime into our communities and put people in danger. That is why I pledge to support any measure that discourages or stops efforts to defund police departments in Texas.

Our law enforcement officers have our backs every single day, and we need to show them that Texans have their backs.

#TexasBacksTheBlue”

In addition to the pledge signing, Attorney General Ken Paxton and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen joined the governor at the Austin Police Association Thursday afternoon to voice their support for this proposal.

Manny Garcia, the Texas Democratic Party executive director, said this is nothing but a “political stunt.”

Texans will always call a spade a spade when they see it. No political stunt by Greg Abbott is going to get Texans to forget the nearly 14,000 lives that have been lost to COVID-19 on his watch and thousands of our loved ones who are fighting for their lives in hospital beds across our state at this very moment. Abbott’s political stunt isn’t going to put any families, who are out of work and facing eviction, at ease.

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. He’s desperate to change the narrative, so reporters stop asking him about his failure to protect Texans from COVID-19. And he thinks Texans will be suckers for it. That is how little he thinks of all of us.

Texans know that equal justice has never been real for Black Texans and many others. They know that we must dismantle systemic racism, and they know peaceful protest against police violence should not be met with more violence, yet that’s exactly what Donald Trump has advocated for. We must always strive to fulfill the American promise, that all are created and treated equally.

Governor Abbott, it is time to change course and take responsibility, even if it means offending Donald Trump. It’s time to put Texas before Trump.

MANNY GARCIA

The governor’s proposal would have to be considered during the next legislative session. Democratic lawmakers are skeptical.

“We need equal justice in the state,” said State Rep. Joe Moody. The El Paso Democrat has been a leader on criminal justice reform in the Texas Legislature. He sees the Governor’s proposals as injecting partisan politics into the debate.

“My hope is that the political discourse will subside and clear minds will get back to work on the very pressing issue of race and justice,” Moody said.

Political experts believe issues of social justice and policing could have a growing influence in competitive races as Republican officials decry efforts to “defund the police.”

Texas’ 21st Congressional District race — featuring incumbent Rep. Chip Roy, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Wendy Davis — could test the value of support for law enforcement among voters in a district labeled a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

“The phrase ‘defund the police’ has become loaded and has become polarizing in and of itself and it means different things to different people,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

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“For Republicans, it enables them to downplay the less-than-stellar performance of Republicans who have, basically, owned the agenda at the state and the national level when it comes to the coronavirus and the economy.”

A U.T. Tyler/Dallas Morning News poll conducted from Aug. 28-Sept. 2 found a majority of Texans, 57-to-27%, oppose defunding police. President Trump has routinely called for “law and order” in response to social unrest over police brutality in cities across the country.

Roy, a former federal prosecutor, signed a pledge on Wednesday to “Back the Blue,” following Gov. Greg Abbott’s call for all leaders to oppose any efforts to defund police.

“Our men in women in blue who stand up defending us, and are holding the line, they deserve our support,” Roy told KXAN during an interview. “Not blind support, but strong support.”

Davis, who served in the Texas Senate for six years and was defeated in her campaign for governor against Abbott in 2014, said support for law enforcement and acknowledging needed changes in policing don’t have to lead to an and/or conclusion.

She would not second-guess the decision by the Austin City Council to reimagine public safety. Davis said she does not support defunding police.

“I don’t think we have to divide our support in either of these directions in order to accomplish the goals that we want to see,” Davis said.

Those goals — banning chokeholds, ending qualified immunity for officers, and improving training — don’t prevent a community from giving law enforcement the resources they need, according to Davis.

“I can tell you that living in the heart of Austin, literally a block away from downtown, this is a safe community,” Davis said.

“I feel safe here.”

Early voting for the November general election begins Oct. 13 in Texas.

State Board of Education hears from public about potential changes to sex-ed curriculum

The Texas State Board of Education on Tuesday discussed proposed changes to health education curriculum, including sex-ed.

The Texas health education standards were written in 1998 and have remained largely unchanged for more than two decades.

Approximately 300 people signed up to testify to the board about recommendations from a series of working groups tasked with compiling changes to the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for Health Education.

The meeting, which started at 8:00 a.m. Tuesday, carried on well into the afternoon.

The 50-plus pages of changes include updates to language focused on fertilization, menstruation, puberty, sexual abuse and harassment, dating violence, consent, sexually-transmitted diseases, contraceptives and abstinence.

“There is no room for parents to control students’ access to information about sex,” high school senior Ann Phan testified.

“It is not enough to ask teenagers not to touch each other,” Phan stated. “I cannot tell you how helpful it would have been to have discussed healthy sexual relationships before my friends and I formed ideas of them through pornography.”

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Austin ISD’s student health advisory committee chair, Cynthia Soliz pointed out there was no mention of abortion in the proposed standards.

“I’m not asking for value judgements, just black and white information about abortion,” Soliz said.

The recommendations from the working groups made no mention of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender education.

“I’m not opposed for people to know that there are alternative lifestyles out there,” Austin pastor Joaquin Evans testified. “My concern is what that opens up in the realm of teaching materials, and how that stuff is taught, and the material that comes from Planned Parenthood— and the like— organizations that use excessively graphic material video content.”

Christopher Hamilton, CEO of Austin non-profit Texas Health Action called the draft recommendations a “wonderful first-step in providing comprehensive and inclusive sex education.”

“Thank you for including consent and contraceptives in the latest version of the TEKS,” Hamilton said.Groups call for an overhaul of sex-ed curriculum in Texas 

report by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund in 2019 indicated more than half of Texas public school districts teach abstinence-only sex education, around a quarter of public school districts don’t teach sex education and 16% of them teach “abstinence-plus” sex education.

The board will meet in November for a final vote on the proposed changes.

Senator Cruz on Coronavirus relief and Trump’s Supreme Court list

“Congress needs to be acting” said Sen. Ted Cruz on the morning after the U.S. Senate failed to pass a new Coronavirus relief bill. The $500-billion plan pushed by Republicans fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate.

All of the Democrats in the Senate voted to block the bill, as did Kentucky Republican Rand Paul.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to see legislation move through Congress before election day,” said Sen. Cruz. He put the blame on Democratic leaders.

“[Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer] have concluded that maximizing economic pain is in their political self interest,” Cruz said.

Sen. Schumer (D-New York) had criticized the Republican plan as being “emaciated.” Democrats are proposing a $3-trillion relief bill, roughly six times the size of the Republican proposal. Democrats want the relief plan to include funds for state and local governments, as well as a second round of stimulus checks for many Americans.

“I don’t think checks are the right solution,” said Sen. Cruz. “What I think our focus should be is on recovery,” Cruz added. He supports plans to cut taxes and reduce regulations on businesses, including a “liability safe harbor” to keep businesses from facing lawsuits if workers or customers get sick from the Coronavirus.

Cruz also says he supports tax incentives for more Coronavirus testing. “We have to have people confident that they’re safe and their families are safe,” he said.

Sen. Cruz spoke to State of Texas host Josh Hinkle a few days after President Trump put the Texan’s name on a list of 20 people he would consider nominating to serve on the Supreme Court. There is not a vacancy on the Court at this time. The list gives insight into the President’s idea of who would make a good Justice.

“It is an immense honor for the President to have that level of confidence in me,” Cruz said of the list. He said while it’s important to serve on the Court, he’s not interested in being nominated.

“I have spent much of my adult life fighting to defend the Constitution, fighting to defend the Bill of Rights,” Cruz said. “I intend to continue doing so right where I am now, in the U.S. Senate representing 29 million Texans.”

Agriculture Commissioner backs calls for expanding use of medical marijuana

The state’s top agriculture official wants to learn more about how marijuana is cultivated for medicinal purposes, in light of updates to the Compassionate Use Program in Texas.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller toured Compassionate Cultivation on Thursday. The Austin-area facility is one of three in the state licensed to grow marijuana for medicinal use.

“My purpose of coming today is to learn all I can about hemp, about THC, about medical marijuana,” Miller said.

“I want to see what what they’re doing out here and how they’re able to help so many people,” he explained.

Last legislative session, lawmakers approved allowing low-THC cannabis to be prescribed to treat conditions including epilepsy, autism, multiple sclerosis, and terminal cancer.

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After meeting with a group of parents whose children use medical marijuana for autism and other conditions, Miller said he was in favor of expanding the use even further.

“I would certainly expand medical marijuana. If it’ll help somebody, I’m for it. Whatever it is. I mean, a toothache, I don’t care. If it’s a cure, if it [alleviates] pain, we should be able to use that,” he said.

“I’m not a recreational marijuana, but if someone has a condition that this chemical will help, they should be able to use it,” Miller said.

Morris Denton is the chief executive officer of Compassionate Cultivation.

“We’re creating a great product that’s changing people’s lives and there’s a lot of real credibility in the medicine that we produce, as evidenced by the thousands of patients and the tens of thousands of their family members that are seeing the benefit,” Denton said.

Miller also hoped to glean details on the budding success of medical marijuana in Texas, to improve the the state’s new hemp licensing program.

“We’re nearing the harvest time for our hemp,” Miller said. “We have over 1,000 producers, over 5,000 acres.”

As of last week, the state had approved 46 hemp processor licenses and 9 hemp testing laboratories (3 of which are located out of state).

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