Annie Lowrey: Defund the police
Police budgets are mostly paid by local governments. And for local governments, COVID-19 has been a fiscal catastrophe. Local governments fund themselves through a combination of property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, special taxes (on the occupants of hotels, for instance), and aid from states. By slashing consumer spending, the pandemic has slashed sales-tax revenue. The collapse of tourism has decimated special taxes paid by the hospitality industry, and job losses have reduced revenue from income taxes. Moreover, states—which face their own budgetary shortfalls—are likely to cut local aid. The result, according to the National League of Cities, is that from now until 2022, cities collectively face a budgetary hole of $360 billion.
On May 15, House Democrats responded by passing the HEROES Act, which would have allocated close to $1 trillion to state, local, and tribal governments—$375 billion of which would have gone to cities and counties. Because most states and many cities start their fiscal year on July 1, that cash might have helped local governments stave off major budget cuts.
Senate Republicans, however, oppose another large infusion of federal funds anytime soon. In April, McConnell suggested that states respond to their fiscal woes by declaring bankruptcy. Earlier this month, Chuck Grassley, the Republican chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, cited a better-than-expected May jobs report as evidence that Congress should “not rush to pass expensive legislation paid for with more debt.”
That means many cities must make large cuts soon. Budget crises alone may not have led to lower police funding, and protests alone may not have, either. But they form a potent combination.
In Los Angeles, for example, a sharp decline in revenue from occupancy, sales, and business taxes prompted Garcetti to declare “a state of fiscal emergency.” Even as he announced furloughs that could cost some state workers 10 percent of their salary, along with budget cuts to housing and jobs programs of roughly 9 percent, the police budget was still slated to rise.
The massive protests surrounding Floyd’s killing made that proposal untenable. “It’s absolutely a zero-sum game,” Melina Abdullah, a professor of pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter, told Los Angeles Magazine. “Every dollar [Garcetti] is spending on police, he’s choosing not to spend those dollars on things that make communities safe.” A city councilman, David Ryu, declared it “unacceptable” that “the first thing we cut in this budget was social services.”
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On June 3, City Council President Nury Martinez and two other council members called for cutting the police budget by $100 to $150 million. Garcetti embraced the idea hours later. It’s possible that the protests would have forced him to do so even if L.A. had received an infusion of federal aid. But local Black Lives Matter activists had been urging cuts to the LAPD for years—to no avail. The absence of money from Washington made the city’s budgetary trade-offs starker, which made sparing the LAPD harder to sustain.