Harris Co leaders vote to sue TX comptroller over budget threat
Harris Co Commissioners Court on March 22, 2022. Photo by Lucio Vasquez/Houston Public Media.

Harris County is preparing to strike back at Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar over his move to possibly block the county’s budget. County leaders voted along partisan lines to pursue legal action against the comptroller.

All three Democrats on the court – Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia – voted in favor of pursuing legal action. The three also voted in favor of an agreement to hire two outside law firms, Yetter Coleman LLP and Alexander Dubose & Jefferson LLP, in advance of a possible lawsuit. Republican Commissioner Jack Cagle voted “a vehement no.” Republican Commissioner Tom Ramsey was absent on a long-planned vacation to celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary.

The move comes a week after Comptroller Glenn Hegar accused county leaders of cutting funding to two constables precincts in the upcoming budget by no longer allowing departments to roll over money left from the previous year.

Hegar threatened to invoke Senate Bill 23, which bans counties with more than a million residents from cutting funding to law enforcement without first going to the voters to approve the proposed budget. Failure to do so, or to withdraw the alleged budget cuts, would require the county to drop its ad valorem tax rate significantly.

Governor Greg Abbott immediately endorsed Hegar’s action in a press release.

Judge Lina Hidalgo argued that, on the contrary, Hegar is the one threatening to defund Harris County’s police if he blocks adoption of the county budget. She also hinted that the lawsuit could be extended to Governor Abbott, saying that Hegar was effectively acting at his direction.

“I’m not asking for this fight. The last thing our community needs is to have their public health, their law enforcement actually defunded by the state. But if they’re going to try to do this, we have to fight back,” Hidalgo said. “I am pretty opposed to giving in to any kind of extortion.”

The county must approve its budget for the new fiscal year by October 1st.

Judge Hidalgo said that, far from cutting police funding, the proposed county budget would increase funding to all arms of county law enforcement by more than $90 million. She argued that her administration has regularly increased funding to all county law enforcement, including the constables, since she took office in 2019.

Commissioner Garcia made a similar point in explaining his vote in favor of a lawsuit. “It is not the action that I would have preferred to be decided today,” Garcia said “But to make it clear that there is no defunding that has occurred, no defunding that will occur, except by Governor Abbott and the Republican leadership in the state, this action is necessary.”

Hegar, Abbott, Cagle, Hidalgo, and Garcia are all up for reelection this November.