January 5, 2019

Homeless Feud

Governor Could Trigger Territorial Confrontation With DPS Deployment
Amid Soaring Stakes on Austin Homeless Policy in Stabbing Aftermath

MIKE HAILEY

Governor Greg Abbott could order the state police to start fighting crime in Austin rapidly-growing homeless community if he wants to back up a series of taunts and tweets with action in the wake of a fatal stabbing on South Congress Avenue late last week.

The Republican governor could deploy Texas Department of Public Safety personnel to the Capital City like he did back in June amid a record vault in murder rates there. Dallas welcomed the assistance in a way that Abbott wouldn't expect in Austin in the midst of a rhetorical fusillade with Democrats who control city hall on the policing of the homeless here.

But Abbott might not be inclined to use the most potent weapon in his political arsenal in his crusade against the Austin homelessness policy by summoning state lawmakers back to Austin for a special session to force the city where Texas government is based to tighten it.

A special session would have the potential to backfire big time for the Republicans on a number of fronts during an election year that could bring an end to GOP rule in the Lone Star State. Abbott and the GOP could expect Democrats to turn a special legislative gathering into a cheerleading forum for restrictions on guns in a state that's been rocked by a sharp increase in mass shootings in the past few years.

While the governor could restrict a special session agenda to the singular issue of homeless management, he couldn't prevent Democrats from filing legislation that would limit gun rights and talking for hours on the House and Senate floors about a crisis of violence that they'll attribute to a GOP obsession with the Second Amendment.

Abbott would catch heat from the hard right as well if he convened a special session without opening the call to a slew of hot-button measures that conservatives have been pushing for months to have him order the Legislature to consider in such a gathering.

A special session could be a public relations nightmare for the GOP if Democrats knocked it off track at a time when Texas is widely regarded to be the most critical battlefield in the nation in the 2020 presidential sweepstakes.

Abbott might find it difficult to pass legislation in the Texas House in a special session with GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen distracted by a colleague hit list scandal that's prompting him to give up the gavel without a re-election bid. While Bonnen's first term in the leadership post isn't set to end for a year, the House would probably vote to replace him at the helm at the start of a special session if such an event materialized.

With Democrats just eight or nine seats short of a majority in the lower chamber, the minority party could get a substantial momentum boost in a quest to take the House back if a special session didn't produced the desired results that Abbott envisioned. That might be a likely outcome in chamber where a significant share of Republicans have sided with the Democrats in recent years on attempts by Abbott and other GOP leaders to weaken the powers that Texas cities, counties and other local governing entities have and have fought to protect in statehouse showdowns that they've usually won.

But the governor has taken a more personal interest in the handling of the homeless in Austin since earlier last year when business interests in the downtown area contended that policy in question had stifled the police's ability to protect them from criminal behavior in the streets that line their property.

Abbott vented his disapproval on social media before directing the Texas Department of Transportation to remove homeless encampments that appeared to be growing fast under the Interstate 35 overpasses on the eastern edge of downtown. The state approved the use of some land on the outskirts of the city for a temporary replacement shelter that's a blatant local mandate from the state in the eyes of Democrats like Mayor Steve Adler - the governor's most outspoken critic in the war of words on the homeless.

But Abbott could be setting the stage for a jurisdictional turf battle that's tailor-made for a movie or television script if he sent DPS troopers to Austin in a move that local police leaders might see as a territorial infringement and circumvention of authority.

The political dynamics had been different six months ago when law enforcement officials in the Dallas area were willing to accept help from the state in the face of a surging violent crime rate.

The DPS had troopers, special agents and other specialists working with Dallas-area police and prosecutors in the coordinated crime-fighting initiative in 2019 when the Texas Rangers added their expertise to homicide investigations there.

But Abbott fired the first shot in the latest exchange with Austin leaders on the homeless policy when he revealed details about the suspect in the Friday morning knife attack about a mile from the Capitol at the Freebirds World Burrito restaurant a half-block from the Colorado River. The fast-food dining establishment's kitchen manager was stabbed to death while another person who was in the Freebirds at the time was injured before the suspect scurried up a ladder to the roof from which he either jumped or fell in a daring escape attempt.

"When all facts are revealed I bet you’ll learn that the killer was a homeless man with prior arrests," the governor said in a Twitter post on Friday night.

"If so Austin’s reckless homeless policy puts lives in danger to murders like this," Abbott added in the taunting tweet. "Austin leaders must answer for their perilous policies."

Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside

CONSIDER THE SOURCE

Mike Hailey presents state politics with a personal touch. He's the only Texas Capitol journalist who's been to the dark side and back - having worked for two major newspaper bureaus before signing on as press secretary for Bob Bullock - the most powerful and legendary political leader of his time in the state. Hailey's Comment, which is published in Capitol Inside on a regular basis, is a direct reflection of that experience.

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