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Texas’ chief financial officer walks back claim that Harris County illegally cut constable’s budget

By Joshua Fechter, The Texas Tribune

Texas’ chief financial officer walks back claim that Harris County illegally cut constable’s budget” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday backed off his claim that Harris County “defunded” a constable’s office in violation of a state law intended to prevent cities and counties from cutting their police budgets, ending the latest standoff between the state’s Republican leaders and Democratic officials heading the state’s most populous county.

Hegar accused Harris County leaders in February of cutting the constable’s budget without getting voter approval — a requirement under a 2021 state law passed in the wake of the George Floyd protests. The comptroller barred the county from being able to set their property tax rate, which prompted Harris County officials to sue Hegar.

Local government technicalities and number-punching differences led state and county officials to opposite conclusions of whether Harris County did in fact reduce that constable’s budget.

Ultimately, Harris County won the argument — with Hegar rescinding his finding Monday and allowing the county to once again set its tax rate.

“I’m glad the Comptroller admitted his error and is no longer holding Harris County’s budget process hostage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “I hope that in the future, we can talk through these types of allegations, as the law requires, before the Comptroller makes a final decision.”

The fight hinged on a math problem.

Harris County officials adopted a seven-month spending plan last year as it transitioned to a new 12-month budget schedule. In that shorter plan, county officials set aside $28.6 million to fund Harris County Constable Ted Heap’s office. This year, the county is back on a 12-month budget cycle and allocated $46.6 million for Heap.

But Heap believed his office should’ve received more. He complained to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and Hegar launched an investigation.

The comptroller estimated that based on the money Heap spent each month during last year’s shorter cycle, the constable should’ve gotten about $48.9 million this year. Hegar argued that Harris County shortchanged Heap by about $2.3 million.

County officials shot back by using Hegar’s calculation method against him. If they compared Heap’s budget this year and last year, like Hegar did, the constable’s share now actually represents a bigger slice of the county’s budget than it did then. The law also says that if a city or county’s budget is less than the previous year’s budget, the share of funds set aside for a law enforcement agency can’t fall — a standard Harris County did not violate.

“The Comptroller’s withdrawal reflects what we have known all along: Harris County fully funds law enforcement,” Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a statement.

Despite his formal reversal, Hegar maintained that Harris County did in fact “defund” police and framed his decision as a victory.

“I applaud Harris County and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo for finally admitting that they defunded law enforcement,” Hegar said. “The fact that they defunded police as part of larger cuts to the county’s overall budget is in no way an indication of Judge Hidalgo’s commitment to public safety.”

A representative for Hidalgo did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.

The fight is the latest skirmish between Hegar and Harris County leaders over whether they “defunded” law enforcement.

In August, Hegar accused county officials of defunding public safety in defiance of state law by ending a financial policy that allowed county constables to “roll over” unspent funds to the next year’s budget — an unusual practice in government finance.

At the time, Hegar threatened to block the county from passing a new proposed budget, even though it would have included substantial boosts to the constables’ coffers as well as the county’s overall public safety spending.

Hegar later backed off. But the two Republicans on the Harris County Commissioners Court at the time blocked the proposed budget by not showing up to meetings.

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