by Bill King
For the most part, I find the “defunding the police” debate little more than partisan rhetoric which serves more to obfuscate than elucidate any meaningful discussion about the appropriate level of law enforcement funding. This is especially true in the current back and forth between Democrats and Republicans on Harris County’s funding of law enforcement.
Unfortunately, any attempt to describe how the current County administration has funded law enforcement involves unpacking the County’s Byzantine accounting practices. It is even more complicated by the fact that the County recently changed its fiscal year, which resulted in a “short year” accounting period of seven months this year.
But after studying the numbers in some detail (see Note 1), here are my three takeaways:
- The County does not spend anywhere close to two-thirds of its budget on law enforcement as Judge Hidalgo has claimed.
- Prior to 2021, Commissioners Courts, under both Republican and Democratic control, increased the County’s law enforcement budget by about 5% each year. Since inflation for most of the time was running at about 2%, those increases represented real increases in capacity. However, in 2021, the Commissioners Court only increased the law enforcement by about 2% when inflation was running at 7%, thereby, cutting the budgets by 5% in real economic terms. This also coincided with a dramatic increase in crime.
- This year, in the face of intense public pressure over an exploding crime wave, Commissioners Court granted some one-time funding increases to law enforcement. These fell during the short-year budget. If those one-time funding grants are annualized, they would represent about a 10-11% increase. However, the proposed budget for next year rolls back about half of those increases. Therefore, funding available to law enforcement next year will be less than what they have this year.
The “Two-Thirds” Claim
The claim that Harris County spends two-thirds of its budget on law enforcement is based on excluding the County’s spending on flood control, the toll road system and public health. The expenditures for those areas are technically separate entities but ones which are governed by the Commissioners Court and their budgets are consolidated with other County spending for accounting purposes. It also includes a host of expenditures that most people would not consider a law enforcement function.
According to the County’s most recent audit, about 34% of the County expenditures were for the “Administration of Justice,” of which law enforcement would be a subset. Therefore, the County’s spending on law enforcement is clearly less than one-third, not two-thirds, of its total spending.
Law Enforcement Expenditures Since 2019
The first two years the Democrats controlled the Commissioners Court, they increased the District Attorney’s budget a little over 6% each year. However, in the third year, a year in which crime had begun to explode and the backlog of cases at the courthouse was growing exponentially, they only increased her budget by 1%.
In the face of intense public pressure, the Court added about $10 million in funding to the District Attorney’s budget this year (FY2022 short year), which on
an annualized basis would represent a 13% increase.(see Note 2). However, the proposed budget for the coming year rolls back almost half of that increase.
Since the Democrats have taken control of the Commissioners Court, they have increased the District Attorney’s budget by 26%. During the same time, they have increased the budget for the Public Defender’s office by 217%
This chart shows the percentage change to the District Attorney’s budget since 2019 on an annual basis.
Total funding for the Constables has followed a very similar pattern to that of the District Attorney. Funding was increased modestly the first two years then cut back significantly in the third. They too received a one-time increase in 2022 that is mostly rolled back in the proposed budget.
The Sheriff’s Department has also followed the same general patten but has fared somewhat better on its funding due to the County being forced to deal with the ongoing disaster at the County jail, which is included in the Sheriff’s budget.
I think it would be hard to describe the Commissioners Court funding of law enforcement over the last four years as anything other than anemic, especially considering the significant surge in crime we have seen in our area. During that crime wave, the County was awash with about $1.4 billion in federal COVID funding. Many other local governments used significant portions of those funds to shore up law enforcement to deal with the crime wave that we have seen across nearly the entire country. Harris County did not.
With a proposed budget that quickly retreats from the one-off funding increases this year, the current majority on Commissioners’ Court has clearly signaled their intention to continue funding law enforcement at minimal levels if re-elected. I think that is why you see virtually every law enforcement group lining up in opposition to the Democratic candidates in the upcoming election.
But while Harris County residents may be increasingly alarmed about crime, many also have grave reservations about a Republican Party whose views are becoming increasing out of step with theirs.
As a result, the upcoming election, in my view, will turn on whether voters’ concerns about national partisan issues, like 2020 election denial and abortion, outweigh their concern the troubling policies of Commissioners’ Court over the last four years on local issues like public safety funding. Of course, County government has little to do with those national issues but everything to do with public safety.
- For the purposes of this discussion, I am only going to look at the funding levels for the Sheriff, the Constables, and the District Attorney. While there are certainly other expenditures that relate to the criminal justice system, it is the budget of these departments that most directly affect the ability to actually take criminals off the street.
- The District Attorney’s Office maintains that they have not actually received all of the promised funds. Because the county’s monthly financial statements are so far out of date (latest available at this time is April), I cannot verify whether they have or not.
The article above is reprinted by permission of Bill King. Feel free to submit topical articles/essays/releases for our consideration to [email protected]. As with our usual articles, the views expressed are those of the author.