“These are unfounded claims on our budget,” said County Judge Lina Hidalgo. “And not only that, these unfounded claims threaten our ability to set an appropriate budget for law enforcement, for flood control, for very important basic services.”
Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced last Friday that his analysis concluded that Harris County reduced Constable Ted Heap’s (Pct. 5) budget by $2,367,444, thus triggering sanctions under a state law penalizing large counties that reduce funding for law enforcement.
Confusion over the totals stems from the county’s use of a Short Fiscal Year (SFY) budget of seven months in 2022 before adopting a 12-month budget for FY 2023. The county annualizes the budget using pay periods, but Hegar says the county dropped two pay periods in the analysis.
According to the comptroller’s office, the county’s annualized SFY 2022 adopted budget for Constable Precinct 5 was $48,949 compared to $46,582,350 for FY 2023.
Harris County Administrator David Berry says that using pay periods, Constable Heap’s budget grew from an annualized SFY 2022 budget of $46,582,350 to $48,519,429 for FY 2023.
During a press conference Thursday morning, County Attorney Christian Menefee disputed Hegar’s analysis and defended the county’s accounting methods.
“I would argue that we’re the county, it’s our budget, we get to decide how to annualize,” said Menefee. “But even if you annualize the way Glenn Hegar did, he didn’t do it right.”
After an executive session, County Judge Lina Hidalgo claimed that in addition to the accounting dispute, Hegar’s office was not following the language of Texas law regarding the defunding of law enforcement.
Passed by the legislature in 2021, Texas’ “Back the Blue” law requires counties with populations of more than one million to seek voter approval for reducing law enforcement budgets, or have their property taxes be frozen at the no-new-revenue rate. Complaints are to be filed with the Criminal Justice Division of the governor’s office and then referred to the comptroller for investigation and determination.
Last week, Hegar told The Texan that in addition to a team of data analysts, his legal team had also scrutinized the complaint and analysis.
Following the commissioners court vote, Hegar said the county could have attempted to resolve the issue by communicating with his office or working with local law enforcement.
“Instead Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and the Harris County commissioners would prefer to waste taxpayer resources with more frivolous legal action,” said Hegar in a statement.
Hegar also noted that taxpayers had already paid for a lawsuit last year after his initial warning that the county’s proposed budget may violate the law.
“Harris County law enforcement deserves a county judge and commissioner’s court that support their efforts to keep county residents, businesses and communities safe,” said Hegar.
“Instead, Judge Hidalgo is wasting taxpayer dollars in her crusade to defund the police, satisfy her liberal donors in New York and San Francisco and further her own political career.”
Hidalgo asserted the comptroller’s determination is “part of a larger threat to democracy” coming from state leaders, and said Hegar and state Republicans are “marching in the same anti-democracy direction started by Donald Trump.”
“These attempts to disenfranchise Harris County residents don’t stop at the comptroller’s office,” said Hidalgo. “I’m sure you’re aware of the statements made by Governor Abbott and [Lt] Governor Dan Patrick calling for new elections.”
During the press conference, Hidalgo also lambasted Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale over his recent lawsuit seeking the release of Harris County Elections Administrator Clifford Tatum’s communications records the county has refused to turn over in Texas Public Information Act requests.
“We’ve got now the mattress guy attempting to sow doubt in the election with a bogus lawsuit to prop up election denialism,” quipped Hidalgo. “In order to, I don’t know what. Finance his profits? Get some free press?”
Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) cast the only vote against filing a lawsuit over the comptroller’s ruling. Last year Ramsey attempted to negotiate increased funding for law enforcement, but his proposals were rejected by the court’s Democrats.
A copy of a letter from Hegar to Abbott, Patrick, Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), Hidalgo, and the Harris County Commissioners Court 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.