Election 2020-Louisiana Congress (copy)

State Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria, shown here in a file photo, has been pushing legislation that would create a procedure to punish local governments that significantly cut the budgets of law enforcement. The House-passed legislation now heads to the full Senate for consideration. 

Despite pleas from local governments that legislation forbidding reducing law enforcement budgets would quickly put them in unintended legal difficulties, a Louisiana Senate committee Wednesday advanced a “defund the police” bill, again on a party line vote, moving the measure within two steps of the governor’s desk.

State Rep. Lance Harris, the chief sponsor of House Bill 38, agreed to change police funding reduction levels from 10% to 25% before local government is penalized.

Republican Sen. Heather Cloud, who had served a dozen years as mayor of Turkey Creek, pointed out that in small towns, money is so tight that budgets shift almost daily. A single officer resigning for a better paying job elsewhere could result in villages and towns running afoul of the law in a single afternoon.

Cloud backed the legislation after Harris agreed to raise the budget trigger and said he wouldn’t change the percentage. The Senate Finance committee voting along party lines, advanced HB38 to the full Senate. If approved there, the House would have to okay the increase from 10% to 25% for final passage.

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 25% 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.

The Louisiana Municipal Association, pointed out that the structure set up in the legislation would wreak havoc on how local governments budget. It was the first time anyone testified for or against the bill.

Local governments put together their budgets under no timeline, but the bill requires reporting to the state Legislature within 15 days of deciding to reduce law enforcement budgets, explained Karen White, counsel to the Louisiana Municipal Association. City councilmen and town aldermen could make the decision and pass the budget all in one day.

Under state law, a drop of 5% in revenues requires local governments to balance their budgets through cuts in funding to services.

If local governments layoff or fire police officers, government is still required by law to continue paying down the debts of the pension system, but now assuming both the former employee’s contribution as well as their own. “They can’t defund because they can’t afford to,” she said.

Harris, an 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.

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.