As sanctuary city bill is heard, further cuts could be looming for Travis County

Leaders from MALC huddle outside the Committee on State Affairs against SB 4 on March 15, 2017. They say the committee substitute is still unacceptable. (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)
Leaders from MALC huddle outside the Committee on State Affairs against SB 4 on March 15, 2017. They say the committee substitute is still unacceptable. (KXAN Photo/Phil Prazan)

AUSTIN (KXAN/AP) — A bill banning so-called sanctuary cities is getting its first hearing in the House State Affairs Committee and public testimony could last hours. Senate Bill 4 has already passed the Senate, but it’s unclear if a House version would include a Senate provision that could charge and jail local officials if they don’t cooperate with federal immigration detainers.

Before the hearing started, more than 260 people were signed up to testify; some of whom were police chiefs from some of Texas’ biggest cities. At last report, that number increased to more than 630 people who had signed up to testify. The committee chairman says there will be no vote Wednesday.

While Houston Chief of Police Art Acevedo couldn’t be at the hearing in person, he issued a statement to the committee stating, “Law enforcement executives must retain the full authority to control and direct their personnel in a manner which is laser focused on combating violent and property crime.” He goes on to say that his department works closely with its federal partners.

Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott cut $1.5 million in grants from Travis County after Sheriff Sally Hernandez changed her immigration detainer policy.

Threatening to withhold grants 

Millions of dollars are at stake for Travis County if lawmakers in the Texas House passes the sanctuary ban. Through an open records request, we’ve obtained emails between the governor and state agencies. They show last year the state gave Travis County $125 million in payments, funding and grants.

The question now is how many of those millions could the state hold back to punish the county for the sheriff’s controversial ICE detention policy?

Outside the committee hearing, Mexican-American state leaders told me holding money back crosses the line. Gov. Abbott already stripped the county of $1.5 million in Governor Justice Grants.

“What he did was make our community less safe by taking away much needed funds for drug courts, veterans court,” said Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin.

He then directed state agencies to report the total money given to Travis County. KXAN’s open records request reveals that’s $125 million. Forty million of that is healthcare funds and other critical needs. Last year nearly $2 million came from or through the state of Texas to work on US 290 and SH 71. In total the Texas Department of Transportation sent $27 million to the county.

Travis County may lose millions because Sheriff Hernandez allows criminals here illegally to bond out of jail, rather than hold them for deportation. The Governor’s Office says they’re looking to see what other money they can withhold and this wouldn’t be an issue if Sheriff Hernandez changes her policy.

“We need to understand that we live in a rule of law nation,” Abbott told KXAN earlier this year.

Hernandez supporter, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, says threatening to pull money is just intimidation. “It’s political posturing. It’s also scapegoating, not only our local sheriff but the city of Austin and Travis County,” said Rep. Rodriguez.

The Senate’s version of SB 4 removes any public official who doesn’t comply. Democrats say that could be unconstitutional.

Details of this bill are expected to change as it moves through the House.

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