BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's municipalities would risk losing state construction dollars if they move to “defund the police," under a measure advanced Monday in the state House, even as the bill sponsor acknowledged no local government around the state is proposing a defunding effort.
Alexandria Republican Rep. Lance Harris, who is running for Congress in the Nov. 3 election, said he's pushing the bill “because the idea to defund the police has become popular" in some parts of the country. He said he wanted to “take proactive action now to guard against this.”
“This is about public safety,” he told the House Appropriations Committee.
The committee sent Harris' bill to the full House for debate with a 13-6 vote, largely along party lines. Republicans voted for the measure, while most Democrats objected to it. One Democratic lawmaker called it political posturing by a congressional candidate that ignores ongoing debates about racial injustice in policing.
“I think it’s nothing but a political stunt,” said Rep. Gary Carter, a New Orleans Democrat.
The proposal would require local governing authorities to notify the Legislature's joint budget committee if they shrink funding for their police department or sheriff's office by 10% or more.
If the committee finds that the financing cut — or any similar reductions to public college police departments — “will have a significant and harmful effect on public safety,” the municipality or the college would be unable to receive state construction dollars for projects. The municipality also would be unable to receive a portion of sales tax dollars steered to local government agencies.
Democratic lawmakers said the measure would protect police agencies above all other services if a city or parish has less revenue because of the coronavirus outbreak or some other event that damages tax collections. They also questioned the point of the bill after Harris said he knew of no discussion among Louisiana's municipalities to strip dollars from police.
Harris only listed out-of-state efforts to deeply cut or eliminate police financing. He mentioned protests at Tulane University calling for the defunding of its police department, but Tulane and the lawmaker whose district includes the school, Rep. Aimee Adatto Freeman, said the university isn't proposing that and hasn't made any police cuts.
“I don't see this happening in Louisiana, and if it were, I'd be with you,” said Freeman, a New Orleans Democrat who voted against the bill.
Several Black lawmakers said Harris' proposal was insensitive since the national debate over law enforcement funding is tied to discussions of racial injustice and follows the death of George Floyd and other African Americans at the hands of police.
Carter noted the bill comes as federal authorities are investigating the 2019 death of Ronald Greene, a Black man whose death after a struggle with the Louisiana State Police has been shrouded in secrecy.
Carter said he donated to Harris's congressional campaign because they are colleagues. He told Harris on Monday: “I sent you a campaign check. I want it back, straight up.”
Harris replied: “This is not a political stunt. You have a right to your opinion. I still respect it. I still love you. You're a colleague of mine. And I will have your check ready today.”
An Associated Press review found that while local governments have trimmed police budgets in recent months, the cuts have been mostly modest and driven as much by shrinking government revenue related to the coronavirus pandemic as from the calls to change public safety approaches.
The bill is filed as House Bill 38.
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