Last month, Texas Comptroller Glen Hegar issued a letter warning that unless the commissioners court made changes to the proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2023 budget, Harris County would be subject to penalty under the state’s anti-law enforcement defunding law known as Senate Bill (SB) 23.
The comptroller’s actions were based on a formal complaint from county Constables Mark Herman and Ted Heap and an acknowledgment from Budget Director Daniel Ramos that the county had taken more than $3 million in so-called rollover funds from the eight constables’ offices.
Consequently, the comptroller warned that if the county did not either revise the proposed FY 2023 budget or seek voter approval for reducing law enforcement funds, the county would have to adopt a no-new-revenue tax rate.
Although Herman and Heap had been meeting with county officials to resolve the issue without triggering state sanction, commissioners voted 3 to 1 along party lines to instead file a lawsuit, interpreting Hegar’s letter to mean they could not vote on a budget and tax rate.
In an emergency hearing last week, the county asked Judge Lora Livingston in Tarrant County to issue a Temporary Restraining Order against Hegar, Gov. Greg Abbott, and the State of Texas. But after discussion with the attorneys, Livingston instead requested the parties craft a “neutral” agreement, clarifying that the commissioners court could proceed to vote on a budget and tax rate.
The agreement includes eight points. It states the comptroller has not yet made a determination, and no actions or statements made to date by the comptroller prohibit or obstruct the Harris County commissioners from adopting a new ad valorem tax rate or adopting and implementing the FY 2023 budget.
Item seven specifically notes, “Nothing in this agreement relieves the parties of their obligations under Texas Local Government Code, Chapter 120.”
“Nothing in this agreement guarantees the outcome of any future determination” the comptroller may make.
Immediately following the agreement, Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D- Pct. 2) issued a statement claiming that Hegar had “capitulated” and the attorney general had conceded in a hearing that “neither the Comptroller nor the Governor have authority under Senate Bill 23 to investigate or make a legal determination about any Harris County budget.”
“Comptroller Hegar misused his power to play political games,” said Garcia.“This agreement makes clear that his actions were a farce from the beginning. It also makes clear that Harris County is free to adopt our proposed budget, which substantially increases funding for essential services, including law enforcement. I’m glad this is settled, and that we can move forward without Comptroller Hegar and Governor Abbott micro-managing our local government.”
Hegar fired back, stating that the court had preserved “state officials’ ability to intervene to advocate for local residents when local elected officials ignore their wishes.”
“Harris County has wasted precious time, and this legal maneuvering stalled fruitful negotiations with the county constables — negotiations that more than a week ago produced an agreement that we understood was satisfactory to all parties.”
Hegar also called out Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who had accused the comptroller of “extortion.”
“We have diligently worked to facilitate a local agreement even as Judge Lina Hidalgo engaged in childish attacks on my office and on Harris County law enforcement,” said Hegar.
“My office’s review has no impact on the Harris County Commissioners Court’s ability to adopt a finalized budget. In fact, the only barriers standing between Harris County Commissioners Court and a finalized county budget are hot air and political ambition.”
The commissioners court is scheduled to approve a FY 2023 budget and set a tax rate on Tuesday, September 13, but Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) has said he would only vote for a budget that adds 200 patrol officers spread through the sheriff’s and constables’ offices. Ramsey stated the cost would amount to only $20 million of the $100 million in additional revenue the county expects to collect in the coming year.
In 2019, the court’s two Republicans, Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) and former Commissioner Steve Radack, did not attend a meeting at which Hidalgo proposed to raise taxes by the maximum 8 percent then-allowed without voter approval, thus denying the necessary quorum for a tax rate vote.
Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) last week queried Ramsey and Cagle to see if they were planning to deny quorum, but neither shared their plans.
The county’s proposed FY 2023 budget includes using a total of $351.3 million in ARPA funds across 18 categories. $47.3 million, or about 15 percent, is set aside for “Justice and Public Safety,” which includes a wide array of programs and services outside of the traditional definitions of law enforcement.
Meanwhile, officials from both political parties, including state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), have criticized the county for defunding law enforcement and urged it to take more immediate action to address skyrocketing crime.
In 2022, murders and manslaughters have increased by at least 24 percent compared to 2020, according to data provided by the comptroller’s office.
A copy of the agreement between the lawyers for Harris County and for the attorney general’s office can be found below.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.