Voting largely along party lines, Republicans in the Louisiana House Appropriations committee Monday advanced legislation that could cost local governments state dollars if police budgets are reduced.
But passage came at a political price for House Bill 38’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Lance Harris, of Alexandria.
One opponent, Democratic Rep. Gary Carter, of New Orleans, called the measure a “political stunt” and demanded Harris return his campaign contribution.
Harris is running for the 5th District Congressional seat that is being vacated by U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto.
“The idea to defund police has become popular in some respects over the last several months,” Harris said. “There needs to be some discussion as to why.”
His Louisiana Police Funding Protection Act would require universities, parishes, and municipalities to notify the Joint Legislative Committee on the Budget, in writing, of any reductions in law enforcement funding and to appear before the panel if the funding drops 10% or greater. If the legislative committee, comprised of members of both the House Appropriations and Senate Finance committees, finds that the budget cuts have a “significant and harmful” effect on public safety, then the university or local government would lose it's money for construction projects and it's appropriations from sales tax dedications.
“Law and order and the safety of our citizens is the underpinning of our free enterprise system,” Harris said.
Harris pointed to a student protest at Tulane University, but acknowledged that neither the private New Orleans school nor any local government in Louisiana has supported taking money from the police.
Democrats voiced concerns that universities routinely have their state appropriations reduced and often have to resort to across the board cuts. Some police departments, wanting to increase salaries, reduce other programs.
Harris countered that the members of the joint legislative committee are reasonable people who would take such circumstances into consideration.
“It’s a precautionary measure to make sure that we do not have a municipality that defunds their police department,” Harris said.
Harris said the 13 cities that have defunded their police, leading some police chiefs to resign, and increases in robberies, assaults and homicides, as what has happened in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death while in police custody focused international attention on law enforcement’s relationship with minority communities.
Shortly after Floyd’s death, a faction in the Minneapolis city council wanted to replace the police department with a public safety system. But that proposal failed to get on the November ballot.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has since suggested shifting some of that city’s police funding for 2021 from police to violence prevention programs. In the meantime, the city’s crime rates have risen.
One outgrowth of the protests over African Americans being killed by law enforcement is the amount of money being spent by police, for instance, on military-style weapons, equipment, and training. “Defund the police” means redirecting money from some of the more physically aggressive policies to programs such as training to deescalate situations or better handle mentally ill people.
But among some partisans, “defund the police” means taking away money and shutting down law enforcement altogether.
Democrats also argued that HB38 was yet another measure that gave the state control over policies local government and university boards have authority to do.
Rep. Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas, pointed out that a number of local governments, including his hometown, are facing significant decreases in revenues because of the economic impact of COVID-19.
The police budget is having to be reduced by 25%. But the town’s mayor and leaders are working with the police chief to increase the budget as sales tax revenues return.
“To me, that’s good government, working together, instead of bringing them to” appear before the Legislature in Baton Rouge, Miller said.
Rep. Carter grilled Harris on what he knew about the City of New Orleans. What’s the amount of the city budget? How much is spent on law enforcement? How many officers are on the NOPD force?
Harris had no answers.
“And yet you want to weigh in and say what you think is an appropriate level of funding for the city of New Orleans for our police department and you don’t know the basics of it. I object to that. I think its untimely. I think its offensive. I think it is nothing but a political stunt,” Carter said. “You’re not running for the New Orleans City Council. … You’re running for congress.”
He added that because of the work the two had done together, he had sent a check in support of the Republican’s congressional campaign. “I want it back,” Carter said.
“I will have your check ready today,” Harris said, denying that it was a political stunt.
One Democratic member and one without party affiliation joined a dozen Republicans on the Appropriations Committee to advance the legislation to the full House for consideration.
Voting in favor of requiring local governments and universities to explain reductions in police budgets (14): Chairman Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma; and Reps Roy Daryl Adams, No Party-Jackson; Tony Bacala, R-Prairieville; R. Dewith Carrier, R-Oakdale; Raymond J. Crews, R-Bossier City; Daryl Andrew Deshotel, R-Marksville; Lance Harris, R-Alexanderia; John R. Illg Jr., R-River Ridge; Timothy P. Kerner, R-Lafitte; Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro; Troy D. Romero, R-Jennings; Francis C. Thompson, D-Delhi; Christopher Turner, R-Ruston; and William Wheat Jr., R-Ponchatoula.
Voting against HB38 (6): Vice Chair Gary Carter, D-New Orleans; and Reps Barbara Carpenter, D-Baton Rouge; Aimee Adatto Freeman, D-New Orleans; Frederick Jones, D-Bastrop; Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey; and Dustin Miller, D-Opelousas;