88th LegislatureCriminal JusticeStatewide NewsTaxes & SpendingTexas Lawmaker Calls for Prohibition on Defunding District and County Attorneys

Harris County has claimed the district attorney’s office is not part of "law enforcement" and not subject to the state prohibition against defunding police.
February 8, 2023
In a follow-up to the statewide prohibition on defunding police, Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) has filed legislation to punish large counties that reduce budgets for district and county attorneys’ offices.

“Prosecutors play an absolutely critical role in the criminal justice system as they are charged with obtaining justice for victims of crime,” said Huffman in a statement. “Prosecutors with criminal jurisdiction should be treated no differently than law enforcement, and I hope that this bill delivers that message.”

In 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Huffman’s “Back the Blue” legislation penalizing large counties that defund law enforcement agencies. The law requires counties with a population of more than one million to seek voter approval to reduce law enforcement budgets. If a county does so without seeking voter approval, then county officials may not increase taxes above the “no-new-revenue” rate.

The language of the 2021 law specifies that these counties may not defund law enforcement agencies “with a primary responsibility for policing, criminal investigation, and answering calls for service,” but last year, the Harris County Attorney’s Office suggested that a district attorney is not a part of law enforcement.

Filed Tuesday, Huffman’s Senate Bill 740 would add“prosecutor’s offices” to the list of agencies that may not be defunded, including “a county attorney with criminal jurisdiction.”

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While in some smaller counties the elected county attorney may prosecute criminal cases, in many larger counties such as Harris, the county attorney is only authorized to handle civil cases.

Last year, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg lambasted Management and Budget Director Daniel Ramos for removing more than $6 million from her office’s budget and demanded that county commissioners stop “defunding law enforcement.”

After First Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Fombonne asserted the county could remove the funds without repercussions, Ogg stated, “I wake to a new world with the county attorney’s office’s determination that we are not a law enforcement agency.”

Ogg has referred to her role as the “top law enforcement agency” of the county, and has emphasized the importance of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO) in assisting the county’s many law enforcement agencies and in addressing rising crime and a massive criminal court case backlog.

Harris County also clashed with Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar last year over the removal of so-called “rollover” funds from the budgets of the eight county constables offices. After Hegar warned the county against adopting a budget that reduced funds for these law enforcement agencies, Harris County commissioners voted 3 to 2 to file a lawsuit.

Under guidance from a Travis County district court judge, Hegar and the county came to a neutral agreement clarifying that commissioners could proceed to vote on a budget and tax rate, but that the comptroller’s office would later review to determine compliance with state law.

Since 2019, Harris County has allocated tax dollars for public safety to the expansion of the public defender’s office and non-traditional programs such as Judge Lina Hidalgo’s proposal to “fight crime through environmental design,” while balking at funding increases for law enforcement agencies and additional prosecutors.

During a meeting last week, Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) requested $4.4 million for 22 HCDAO Intake positions approved in March 2022 but not funded, and an additional $1.6 million for overtime pay for the Intake division.

At the same meeting, Ramos presented two options for increasing funding for both the sheriff’s office and the HCDAO, but alleged that Ogg had awarded raises to some employees without his approval.

While the commissioners court unanimously voted to add $5.6 million to cover a deficit and “restore funding for 120 sheriff patrol positions,” Hidalgo and Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) opposed Ramos’ proposal to add $4.3 million to HCDAO to cover deficits and “restore funding” for 30 assistant district attorney positions.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct 2) motioned to approve the $4.3 million with the stipulation that at least five of the HCDAO positions be in the Intake division. His motion passed with support from Ramsey and Commissioner Lesley Briones (D-Pct. 4), while Ellis opposed and Hidalgo abstained.

In a hurried sequence of events, Ellis then motioned that all other departments except law enforcement be given two percent raises. Hidalgo seconded and then quickly held a vote, which passed unanimously. Afterward, Ellis withdrew his motion and the vote was set aside.

In a statement to The Texan, HCDAO said, “We are appreciative for the continued support of commissioners Lesley Briones, Adrian Garcia, and Tom Ramsey for pushing to restore part of our funding at Commissioners Court today.”

“We are also reviewing today’s budget discussions very carefully to determine their overall impact on the operations of the District Attorney’s Office and on public safety.”


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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a 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.