BR.sessionstarts.031020. 0092 bf.JPG

Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, left, shares a laugh with Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, on the House floor as the 85-day regular legislative session begins Monday March 9, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

The Louisiana House approved Monday evening a bill that would penalize municipalities and parishes that defund law enforcement.

The full House voted 61-26 to forward House Bill 38 to the Senate for review, but not until its sponsor, state Rep. Lance Harris, agreed to change provisions for municipalities and parishes facing revenue shortfalls because of pandemic-related business suspensions.

“This bill is needed because of the idea of defunding the police” has spread around the country, Harris said.

The Alexandria Republican is running for the 5th U.S. Congressional District seat being vacated by the retirement of U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto. And Harris batted away more than one suggestion that this was legislation pushed to promote his candidacy.

His Louisiana Police Funding Protection Act would require 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 requested, should 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 local government would lose its money for construction projects and its appropriations from sales tax dedications.

Plenty of localities are concerned that the business suspensions because of COVID-19 will lower the amount of sales taxes available to fund their local budgets.

“I believe a lot of towns and villages less than 20,000 (people) are going to have problems,” said Rep. Danny McCormick, R-Oil City.

Harris agreed that the legislation would apply only to municipalities and parishes reducing law enforcement budgets because of the countrywide protests against the unauthorized police killings of African Americans.

“If your revenues go down, then you won’t be effected,” Harris said. “I believe that lawmakers have the capabilities to make a good decision on funding.”

He also agreed to remove universities from the legislation because campus cops are reliant on state appropriations to higher education, which had been cut dramatically over the years.

And though no local government in Louisiana is considering such a reduction, the “defund the police” movement has resulted in crime rates going up in cities all across the country, Harris said. He named Austin, New York, and Minneapolis.

Harris linked a dramatic increase in crime in Minneapolis to defunding the police department in that city and quoted from a recent study by University of Utah Professor Paul Cassell, saying that cuts in police department budgets led to 710 additional people being murdered – a statistic Harris repeated over and over again during the debate on the House floor.

While Minneapolis officials did consider defunding their police department, whose killing of George Floyd launched protests around the world, they didn’t follow through.

Cassell’s analysis suggested that the crime rate increased in Minneapolis and other cities because police were reassigned to handle the protests rather than their usual patrolling duty. After the demonstrations ended, police officers scaled back initiatives, such as street stops. If his thesis is correct, then estimates of 710 additional victims were murdered and more than 2,800 victims were shot nationwide while police focused on the demonstrations in June and July. “Of course, this estimate relies on various assumptions,” Cassell wrote.

Meanwhile, “defunding the police” has escalated into partisan rhetoric as Republicans try to paint Democrats, particularly the party’s presidential nominee Joe Biden, as opposing the law enforcement community.

Some of the protests questioned the amount of money spent by police 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 in the 2020 campaign setting, “defund the police,” for many Republicans, has been interpreted as shutting down law enforcement altogether.

When questioned by Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, Harris said he would have brought the measure regardless of his race for Congress. Still, he said he included the legislation on his campaign website to inform voters that he was against “radicals” defunding the police.

Democratic Rep. Malinda White, whose Bogalusa hometown is one of the many cities trying to balance a lack of funding with providing services, blamed Harris for creating the situation in which voters refuse to approve revenue measures needed to pay for law enforcement.

Harris, as House majority leader during Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ first term, opposed every effort to raise taxes to help fill a $2 billion shortfall. As a result, voters got caught up in his and his colleagues anti-tax rhetoric, refused local revenue-raising measures and forced lawmakers on all levels of government to balance budgets mostly by slashing expenses.

“We’ve been defunding the police for quite some time,” White said. 

Voting to penalize locals for defunding the police (61): Speaker Schexnayder, Reps Adams, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Beaullieu, Bishop, Brown, Carrier, Coussan, Crews, Davis, Deshotel, DuBuisson, Dwight, Echols, Edmonds, Edmonston, Firment, Fontenot, Frieman, Gadberry, Garofalo, Goudeau, Harris, Henry, Hilferty, Hodges, Horton, Huval, Illg, Ivey, M. Johnson, Kerner, Mack, McFarland, McKnight, McMahen, Miguez, G. Miller, Mincey, Muscarello, Nelson, Orgeron, C. Owen, R. Owen, Pressly, Riser, Romero, Schamerhorn, Seabaugh, St. Blanc, Stefanski, Tarver, Thomas, Thompson, Turner, Villio, Wheat, Wright and Zeringue.

Voting against HB38 (26): Reps Brass, Bryant, Carpenter, G. Carter, Cormier, Cox, Duplessis, Freeman, Freiberg, Hughes, James, Jenkins, Jones, Jordan, LaCombe, Landry, Larvadain, Lyons, D. Miller, Moore, Newell, Phelps, Pierre, Selders, White and Willard.

Not Voting (18): Reps Bourriaque, Butler, R. Carter, W. Carter, DeVillier, Emerson, Farnum, Gaines, Glover, Green, Hollis, Jefferson, T. Johnson, Magee, Marcelle, Marino, McCormick and Stagni.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.