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Ballot language for Austin police staffing item must include cost, Texas Supreme Court says

The Court, however, ruled against the City of Austin's other revisions to the ballot language, saying they were unnecessary.

AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Supreme Court has ruled the language for a police staffing question to be on Austin voters' ballots in November must include the City of Austin's financial impact estimate in the item.

However, the Court ruled against the City of Austin's other revisions to the ballot language brought by the political action committee behind the police staffing petition, saying they were unnecessary.

Save Austin Now, the same PAC that pushed for the camping ban approved by voters in the May 2021 election, had filed a lawsuit against the City's wording for the police staffing ordinance, saying they were "deceitful." The lawsuit was filed in the Third Court of Appeals in Austin and the Texas Supreme Court, the PAC said.

The Supreme Court ruling found the City's ballot language violated the City Charter and must be replaced with Save Austin Now PAC's captioned ballot language, but with the City's cost estimate inserted at the end.

"While we agree with Relator’s contention that the Austin City Charter requires the City to place the petitioned caption on the ballot verbatim if it complies with the law, we recognize that the City retains discretion to modify that caption if the City determines the caption does not," the court decision read. "Here, we conclude the City correctly determined that the caption’s omission of the ordinance’s financial impact amounted to a violation of state law, requiring that the caption be modified. But we also conclude that the City Charter forbids the remainder of the City’s revisions to the petitioned caption, because those revisions were not necessary to bring the petitioned caption into compliance with the law."

The PAC's filing in the Third Court of Appeals was denied without explanation.

According to the Supreme Court decision, City Council members voted last month to adopt the following language for the proposition:

Shall an ordinance be approved that, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million — $598.8 million over five years, requires the City to employ at least 2 police officers per 1,000 residents at all times; requires at least 35% of patrol officer time be uncommitted time, otherwise known as community engagement time; requires additional financial incentives for certain officers; requires specific kinds of training for officers and certain public officials and their staffs; and requires there be at least three full-term cadet classes for the department until staffing levels reach a specific level?

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said during an interview with KVUE the proposition "would require a budget increase of $150 to $300 million over a five-year period of time. And with a 3.5% cap on our budgets now, this part of our budget would grow faster than the overall budget." However, Austin's chief financial officer said the impact of Save Austin Now's police ordinance could total nearly $600 million over five years.

"There's no way to accomplish it without either raising taxes or cutting programs like fire, EMS, or libraries or parks," the mayor said. "It's just a standard that I'm not sure there's anybody that supports it other than the police union and the folks that tried to gather the signatures for the petition." 

Save Austin Now argued the proposition will not require $600 million and it won't destroy the rest of the City programs. The PAC said the language also left out the following parts of the proposition:

  • to help diversify the police force to be reflective of the ethnicity and gender of the people of Austin;
  • to prize officers who are multi-lingual in non-English languages spoken in neighborhoods they patrol and reward officers who earn honorable conduct citation;
  • to set standards for representative community policing, and
  • to require the Mayor/Council and key staff who oversee APD to attend the Citizen’s Police Academy and the Ride-Along Program to better understand policing in Austin.

The PAC's founders, Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek, issued a statement after the Texas Supreme Court ruling.

“This is a big win for every Austin citizen. City leaders have been playing political games with ballot language for many years, ignoring the City Charter and undermining the rights of petition signers who only wish to petition their government," their statement read in part.

Adler issued the following response to the lawsuit decision, calling it a win for the City on the "most critical issue."

“The Supreme Court has held that $271.5 million to $598.8 million cost of Prop A must be included in the ballot language, something that the petitioners had sought to hide and strike from the ballot language, finding that not including the cost would be 'misleading' and 'inadequate under the law,'" said Adler. "The Court also struck other additions the City Council had included, not because they were not accurate but because not all the elements need to be included in the ballot language."

Save Austin Now also sued the City in the spring over the camping ban ballot language. 

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