State of Texas: Raising the stakes in the debate over defunding police

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) – In a news conference on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott expressed his disapproval for the City of Austin’s decision to transition funding out of Austin Police Department — and announced a proposal stating that any Texas cities that defund their police from now on will have their ability to increase property taxes frozen.

It comes in the wake of efforts by Austin and many other large cities to strip away money and responsibilities from local police departments, a move many conservatives have criticized.

“When crime is on the rise, the last thing we should do is defund law enforcement — and yet that is exactly what the City of Austin did… defunding police puts residents in danger and it invites lawlessness into our communities,” said Abbott.

The Governor said cities that put their residents’ lives in danger should not be able to collect their tax dollars.

Abbott explained this stance based on statistics that show crime in Austin is on the rise — including saying Austin is the number one city in America in year-to-year percentages in murder increases. He said that aggravated robberies have increased by 14% while robberies have increased by 14%.

FACT CHECK: The numbers behind claims Abbott, Texas leaders made about the city of Austin 

“Just because there is an act, or many acts committed by law enforcement does not mean that we reduce law enforcement,” Abbott said.

The Governor explained that while police reform is needed, it’s not a reason to reduce police budget.

Abbott led the news conference alongside Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. During the conference, Patrick also condemned the City of Austin’s vote, saying that Austin and its leadership is moving “in the opposite direction” of where it needs to be going.

“Not only has Austin defunded police, they’ve taken away vital weapons they could use to disperse crowds… no city in Texas should be able to do this again,” Patrick said.

During the conference, Patrick also expressed that incidents would be a lot worse if law enforcement were not present and armed — in addition to private, armed citizens, claiming “the left” also “wants to take away guns from private citizens, not only police.”

Other officials who joined the conference include Tarrant County’s Republican delegation:

  • Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price
  • State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound
  • State Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills
  • State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth
  • State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth
  • State Rep. Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth
  • State Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake

Gov. Abbott promised legislative action after the Austin City Council approved the city’s budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 that included a $150 million shift in funds away from the Austin Police Department.

Only about $20 million of that was money taken away from the police department. The rest was a coordinated effort to move areas the police department oversees — like the DNA crime lab — and put that under civilian oversight.

It’s unclear if the proposal has been written as a bill with details about what the Texas Legislature would consider next legislative session.

Abbott’s office did not response to questions from KXAN about what Abbott considers “defunding” and whether or not a bill has been written.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler responded to Abbott in his own press conference Tuesday afternoon.

He says it was cities are who protected residents from the coronavirus with mandatory mask orders and other safety protocols, not the state. Much in the same way, he says it is cities now that are progressing and re-imagining public safety.

Adler says Abbott’s press conference was only furthering lies.

“The press conference today was not about facts. It presented no data. It was about trying to make us scared,” Adler said.

He says peddling fear and avoiding to engage in policy discussions is a “sickness” he believes we will see more of as the November election approaches. He says he hopes voters turn away from it.

Although Abbott said Austin had the biggest increase in homicide rate year-to-year, Adler pointed out that Austin had the second-lowest homicide rate of major cities in the country, even after the increase.

Adler addressed the intricacies of the $150 million being redirected out of the Austin Police Department. He says out of that $150 million, only $20 million was really cut from police budget, and it’s being moved to other public safety programs to help with mental health and homelessness.

He says that $20 million cut unfilled officer positions and the delay of three cadet classes.

“It’s important to note that we did not lay off any officers. There was no detrimental impact on emergency response,” he said.

Adler says $80 million out of the $150 million was to make entities like the forensics lab more independent — the lab’s services itself were not cut.

“It was to move certain functions to civilian control and a more independent status,” he said. “No function was ended. No function was reduced.”

As for the remaining $50 million, Adler says the city is just reevaluating the current responsibilities of officers, and how they could find other personnel that would be a better fit for some jobs.

“Safety is our primary concern — keeping our community safe. And that means safety for all,” Adler said.

Adler says public safety is broader than just the police department, EMS and the fire department.

“If the governor wants to have a conversation about policy and public safety — what we need to do to make us safer — then I’m ready to engage,” Adler said.

He says he hopes they can begin to talk about public safety in a new way.

“Our state should be celebrating and learning from our cities instead of threatening them and trying to change them.”

Lt. Gov. Patrick indicated the proposal would retroactively impact the decision made by Austin City Council.

“I hope that legislation in its final form will roll back what they’ve done,” he said. “The people of Austin deserve to be protected by their police.”

Chad Ruback, an attorney and expert on constitutional law, said it’s unclear whether the state has the authority to freeze a city’s property taxes based on that city’s decisions on police budgets.

“This is uncharted territory,” Ruback said. “I don’t remember every seeing any sort of proposal remotely like this in the past, so there’s not precedent for us to predict courts might do.”

Ruback said if the proposal is ultimately passed by the Texas Legislature, lawsuits will quickly follow.

“Generally, the legislature acts before vetting things,” he said. “After that we’ll let the lawyers sort things out.”

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said he was not aware of the proposal before it was announced by Gov. Abbott during a press conference on Tuesday. He also did not know if the state had the authority to implement such a proposal, since he hasn’t been able to read it.

The issues of police reform and funding are part of the debate for candidates in the November elections.

In the basement of a bar on Lake Travis, Rep. Roger Williams (TX-25) railed against the “left-wing mob” and efforts to defund police as Republicans held ‘MAGA Meetups’ across the country to counter the Democratic National Convention.

Williams, who represents a district stretching from Austin to Dallas, expressed support for Gov. Abbott’s proposal to freeze property tax revenues for cities that defund police.

“I think (Gov. Greg Abbott) has every right to do that,” Williams said. “You really have to look at what’s happening in Seattle and Portland and some of these other communities and also Austin, it’s not going very good.”

Julie Oliver, the Democratic nominee in Texas’ 25th Congressional District, who lost to Williams by nearly nine points in 2018, called the proposal a “stunt.”

“It’s meant to distract everyone from his failed leadership with respect to this pandemic and with respect to the Black Lives Matter protests and marches that have been going on around the state,” Oliver told KXAN.

A poll released in July by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed Oliver down only two points to Williams. Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee for president, has topped President Trump in four of the last six statewide polls in Texas.

Unemployed Texans ask for help to reach TWC

Within days of a KXAN report detailing what the Texas Workforce Commission did with a list of 111 names we sent the TWC, we’ve uncovered the problems with the commission’s call centers is much worse than we knew before.

More than 300 unemployed Texans wrote to KXAN asking to have their names added to a second list we are working to submit to the state’s unemployment agency next week. On July 20, we submitted a list of 111 names of people across the state who wrote us detailing—in some cases—months of unsuccessful attempts to get someone on the line at the TWC.

BACKGROUND: People say they still can’t get a hold of Texas unemployment agency 5 months into pandemic 

Several of the 111 named on the list said they never received a call from the agency. The TWC claims to have called all of the 111 people “within three days” and resolved “102 of 111 claims,” according to an emailed response from Margaret Hession, TWC’s Director of Communications.

Ashley Green shows her Texas Workforce Commission online account (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)
Ashley Green shows her Texas Workforce Commission online account showing her March 29, 2020 claim still in a pending status on August 5, 2020. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)Read More »

A total of 16 people on the list claimed to have never received a call. Of the 50 people we spoke with, 17 of the 111 told KXAN they still had not had their unemployment problems resolved as of August 11.

The TWC’s three-member board, Chairman Bryan Daniel, Labor Commissioner Julian Alvarez and Commissioner Aaron Demerson met Thursday in a virtual meeting. Just three days earlier we emailed each of the commissioners to request an interview to explain why the agency still had hundreds of people unable to reach the eight call centers the TWC established to handle pandemic-related unemployment claims.

None of the three commissioners ever agreed to an interview and neither of the three responded. We signed up to question the commissioners during the August 20 public meeting.

“We’re now five months into this pandemic—you’ve opened eight call centers, put more than 1,000 call takers to work; those call centers are open seven days a week, 12 hours a day—why are people still unable to contact a call center to get their unemployment problems taken care of?” KXAN investigator Jody Barr asked the commissioners.

We sent your agency 111 names last month of people who have placed thousands of calls to your call centers and were never able to get through. We aired an update last week where your agency said the best advice to those having trouble is—to just keep calling. We got 300 new complaints in the past week—people all across this state with the same problem: they cannot get through. Is there no other answer than that,” Barr asked.

None of the three TWC commissioners offered any response to those questions.

Texas Workforce Commissioners from left: Chairman Bryan Daniel, Commissioner Julian Alvaraz, III and Commissioner Aaron Demerson.

TWC Executive Director Ed Serna was slated to provide an update on several items related to the agency’s performance under agenda item 15. Specifically, “Customer and Board Service Issues,” was one that appeared to relate to the problems highlighted in our reporting. But, the meeting ended with Serna never delivering any updates on any of the items contained under agenda item 15.

In response to our email requesting an interview with the three commissioners, TWC spokeswoman Hession responded in an email indicating the TWC wanted the names and contact information for the additional 300 Texans who contacted KXAN, because they could not get through to the agency’s phone centers.

“You have indicated that you have an additional 300 names that have been submitted to you, however, you have not shared those names with the agency to allow us to help those individuals.  We ask that you share those names and contact information and we will commit to assisting those individuals in a timely manner.”

MARGARET HESSION, TWC DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS

Hession’s August 19 email comes one week after her office told KXAN the option for those who can’t get their calls answered is to keep calling.

“It’s not our normal system to have news agencies provide us lists of information for us to call through with them. It’s just not part of our system,” Cisco Gamez, a TWC spokesman said in a virtual interview last week.

The commission posted updated numbers to its website Thursday showing $25.4 billion in unemployment benefits were paid to 4.5 million Texans since March 14.

We’re currently compiling the list of names and contact information for the 300 people who contacted us detailing problems getting through to the TWC. We plan to submit the list next week.

“We plan to continue sending you all names of people desperately trying to reach the TWC, but I’m sure you’d agree—it should not take a news outlet playing middle man for the public to get the services their tax dollars pay each of you for,” Barr said to the commissioners during the August 20 meeting.

KXAN also made multiple interview requests with Governor Greg Abbott’s office. Abbott appoints each of the three TWC commissioners. We wanted to ask Abbott whether he was aware of the problems that linger at the TWC and if there’s anything to help Texans who continue having trouble communicating with the agency.

Abbott has not responded to multiple requests.

TWC confirms cases of identity theft in unemployment benefit system

When Sean Aragon lost his job earlier this month, he hoped to take advantage of the state’s unemployment benefit system. Instead, someone tried to take advantage of him.

When Aragon, who was most recently a project manager for a mechanical, electrical and plumbing company, applied for unemployment benefits through the Texas Workforce Commission, he was notified someone had already applied for benefits using his information— two months before he lost his job.

“They said, ‘Well, sir, you already have filed twice with us, so this is not new account,’ like ‘Oh, man, no, I didn’t file twice,’” Aragon said.

“It’s that sinking feeling where you go ‘Oh, great,’” Aragon said, describing his reaction to finding out his information was compromised.

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” he explained. “You have to just sit back and work the problem, and work with the Texas Workforce Commission.”

The Texas Workforce Commission has identified, confirmed and logged over 3,500 identity theft fraud claims since January, an agency spokesperson said this week. That accounts for .07% of overall claims submitted.

“This is a small number but a big deal for the people that may have their identity or unemployment insurance benefits stolen,” agency spokesperson Cisco Gamez said.

TWC has a high-risk suspicious claim detection tool on the front end to review claims when they are filed, Gamez said. If a claim is deemed high-risk, the claimant must contact TWC’s Office of Investigations to be identified before the claim will proceed.

“Even though our tool is very good, it doesn’t detect all fraudulent claims,” Gamez said, encouraging employers to respond to suspicious claim filings as soon as possible, which allows investigators to identify whether the fraud is related to a single claim or part of a larger scheme.

An agency audit identified suspicious activity on some users’ accounts, TWC reported last week.

Texas has paid out over $25 billion in unemployment insurance claims since mid-March, the agency confirmed Thursday.

“We know that nefarious actors are targeting that money,” TWC Executive Director Ed Serna said in a prepared statement this week.

“All fraud is a betrayal of the taxpayers and a shameless exploitation of the suffering of others for the fraudster’s personal gain and we take aggressive steps to identify it, prevent it and stop it,” Serna stated.

Gamez said the agency is notifying potential fraud victims and working with law enforcement authorities as part of these investigations.

He said the unemployment system itself is not compromised.

In Aragon’s case, the fraudster did not get the financial payout.

“Thankfully I didn’t get to that point on my case because they caught up before any payouts were done, but how many people out there weren’t so lucky, and they have those charges sitting out there right now that they don’t know about?” Aragon said.

According to TWC, penalties for fraudulent behavior may include fines up to $4,000 and jail time, including “forfeiture of benefits received and the right to benefits that remain in the claimant’s benefit year.” Previous criminal prosecutions relating to unemployment insurance fraud can be found on the TWC website.

TWC established a Fraud and Program Abuse Hotline to report suspected fraud, waste, or program abuse. Texans can call 800-252-3642 to reach that hotline 24 hours per day, seven days per week. The agency also has additional warnings for jobseekers about scams and unemployed Texans who may receive calls from someone pretending to be a TWC representative. TWC has also published information for Texans who believe their information may be compromised.

Texas Democrats work to stand out in short time in the spotlight at convention

Texas Democrats did not get much camera time at their party’s convention.  But some still found a way to make a mark with their limited time in the spotlight.

The traditional roll call for the party’s presidential nomination happened remotely, with people announcing the delegate allocations in videos from locations in each state and territory.

Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar spoke from downtown El Paso. A group of citizens stood behind her as she addressed the convention.

“A year ago, my safe community of El Paso was targeted by a domestic terrorist who murdered 23 innocent people, injured 23 more, and devastated all of us. His motive was racism and xenophobia,” Escobar said, referencing last summer’s mass shooting at a Walmart.

“The time has come to act,” Escobar said. The people behind her then raised their arms in a show of strength as she announced 161 votes from Texas for Biden.

No Texans were among the convention’s individual featured speakers. But Tuesday night brought what the party called “a different kind of keynote.” Seventeen elected Democrats spoke together, their pre-recorded comments were edited together to highlight a message of inclusiveness.

The keynote included two Texans from the Dallas area, State Rep. Victoria Neave and Congressman Colin Allred.

“I look around my district in north Texas and I see the people who built this country,” Allred said during a segment of the video where several recently-elected Democrats spoke about why they ran for office.

“The educators like the single mom who raised me. The men and women on the front lines of our health care system. You built this country,” Allred said, before the video cut to another speaker.

“In Texas, we’re standing up for fierce women like my mom and my tias who raised me to never back down from a tough fight,” Neave said during the video. “We’re fighting to make sure that mothers have access to health screenings for safe pregnancies and child birth. And we’re bringing long overdue justice to survivors of sexual assault.”

Last legislative session, Neave authored House Bill 8, also known as the Lavinia Masters Act, named after a Dallas resident who was raped at knife-point at 13 years old. Her rape kit was untested for more than 20 years. The legislation requires an audit and sets deadlines for the analysis of untested kits. It also extends the statute of limitations for certain sexual assault offenses.  

Both Neave and Allred are Democrats who recently flipped districts from red to blue.

The Republican National Convention will be held next week.  Unlike the Democrats, Republicans plan to bring delegates together in-person for the formal nomination of Donald Trump for President. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will lead the Texas delegation.  Each state and territory will send six delegates to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Libertarian candidate aims to win votes in Texas

Republicans and Democrats are getting most of the attention. But Jo Jorgensen, the Libertarian candidate for President campaigned in Texas earlier this month to remind voters that there’s another option in November.

Jorgensen made several stops around the state to reach voters. Her overarching message is that big government leads to big problems, and that a Libertarian approach is better to handle issues like pandemic response and police reform.

“I’d like to point out that a lot of the Black Lives Matter protests that we hear, they also see the same problem we see with government,” Jorgensen said during a stop in Austin. “We’re both against the racist war on drugs. We’re both against no-knock laws. We’re both against qualified immunity,” she continued.  But she acknowledged that most of the people calling for police reform see different solutions than Libertarians.

“We see big government as having created all those problems and what they want to do is they want to go to even more big government. And we think the only way to cure big government is to go the other direction and get government out of it,” Jorgensen said.

She cited the example of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott as an example of government contributing to discrimination.

“What a lot of [protesters] don’t realize is that that was a government run, government owned bus,” Jorgensen said, adding that the majority of the people paying to use the bus were Black.  “Only big government can get away without being held accountable.  So that’s why we want to move in the other direction.”

Rejecting big government also has Libertarians like Jorgensen opposing federal stimulus programs – like the Coronavirus relief package being considered on Capitol Hill.

“What we’ve got to keep in mind for each person getting that 12-hundred dollars, that money had to have come from somewhere. And it’s coming from the same people, but it’s just costing a heck of a lot more than 12-hundred dollars.  So, instead of sending our money to the federal government, and then getting part of it back.  How about we keep our money and we decide where to spend it.”

Jorgensen is not likely to win in November.  Still she pushes back against those who say a vote for her is a wasted vote.

“I would say a vote for either Trump or Biden this election is a wasted vote,” Jorgensen said. “I don’t see much difference in their strategies. Both of them want to spend your money. Both want to make decisions for you, and neither wants to bring the troops home.”

She finished the interview by calling on voters to look closer at the Libertarian platform in November.  “We are the only ones who are talking about the things that people are looking for,” Jorgensen said.

State partners with social media influencers for COVID-19 messages

Since the pandemic began, the Texas Department of State Health Services has spent more than six million dollars educating Texans about COVID-19. Some of that money is going to so-called social media “influencers” to help spread its message to younger Texans.

Parker James is one of the social media stars hired by the state. James has six million followers on Tik Tok. 

“I brought a more childlike character to them to inform them on the importance of wearing masks, sanitizing, and overall social distancing and being safe.”

James created a character known as stEvEn.  He speaks with a shrill voice, and his face is altered in the video with bulging eyes and an exaggerated mouth.  It’s far different from a traditional public service announcement.

It’s a strategy that makes sense to Michael Mackert, Director of the Center for Health Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.

“Corporate brands and advertising have been on social media for a long time and there’s a reason for it because they’ve found where there people are and can reach them where they’re likely to hear them,” Mackert said

So far, James’ video has been viewed more than 3-million times. The state plans to continue the campaign through February.

“If this effort in Texas really works, then great, other states should do the exact same thing,” Mackert said.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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