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Thousands march for social justice, police accountability

Thousands of people marched through the streets of Denton on Monday night, echoing frustrations and calls for accountability from law enforcement after the death of George Floyd.

Floyd, a black man, died last week after Derek Chauvin, a white Minneapolis police officer, put his knee on the handcuffed man’s neck until he stopped breathing. As Denton protesters held signs reading the names of black men and women killed by police action, such as Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Sandra Bland and George Floyd, all yelled with resounding frustration, “Black lives matter.”

An estimated 2,500 protesters, or more, participated in Monday night’s march, filling East Hickory Street from the Square all the way to Bell Avenue.

A third night of protests in Denton

Kevin Tarver, the father of Darius “DJ” Tarver, a University of North Texas student fatally shot by a Denton officer in January, told protesters during his speech that “if we don’t come together, the world won’t.”

“My son is gone, and a lot of you might not have been able to know him personally, but he was a UNT student, and he wanted to make a difference,” Kevin Tarver said to a group of about 1,000 protesters. “He wanted to be an officer himself, because he’s seen the indifference and wanted to make change, and the very thing he wanted changed is the thing that killed him.”

As members of the community marched for several miles, from the Square to Denton County’s juvenile detention center and courts building and beyond, the protest remained peaceful and calm despite filling roadways. There were no reported confrontations with Denton police or the Denton County Sheriff’s Office, although a significant law enforcement presence was on the scene. A police escort was provided while protesters marched in the streets.

Marchers stopped at certain spots, such as Emily Fowler Central Library, to allow speakers to air grievances.

Jeff Woo/DRC  

Denton police officers kneel in front of protesters in downtown Monday. Thousands of people filled the streets Monday night to call for an end to police violence and racial inequality.

One speaker in Monday’s protest, which was organized by the local Black Lives Matter movement, said protests were only the start.

“This is the beginning of hearing black voices, the beginning of calling out racial ignorance, the beginning of educating so that the ugliness that is swept under the rug is wiped out,” the protester said. “We are not broke, we are woke.”

Denton Police Department spokeswoman Allison Beckwith said protesters vandalized the veterans memorial on the Courthouse on the Square lawn. Police Chief Frank Dixon said on Twitter that some people had thrown items at Denton officers, who “remained very professional.”

Jeff Woo/DRC 

Denton police patrol downtown while protesters chant at them, several hours into Monday's demonstration. 

As several hundred protesters remained on hand past the 9 p.m. curfew, Denton Police Department spokeswoman Allison Beckwith said late Monday that officers had not made any curfew-related arrests but were trying to get demonstrators to leave.

Denton jail custody records showed that two people were booked on city ordinance violation charges shortly after midnight.

State attorney general intervenes in ex-DME employees' lawsuit against the city

The Texas Attorney General’s Office has intervened in a wrongful termination case filed three years ago by two former Denton Municipal Electric employees.

In a 16-page response filed last week in the 68th District Court in Dallas, the state’s attorneys defended a state cap that would limit any damages paid to former employees Michael Grim and Jim Maynard. The state’s filing followed a challenge by the pair’s attorneys, who claim the cap is not constitutional.

Back in February, a Dallas jury sided with the two men and their wrongful termination claim and awarded them nearly $4 million in damages. But because they sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act, the award is limited by law to $250,000.

Attorneys for the two men said the cap violates the state constitution in three ways: traditional legal principles (known as common law), as a special law, and through a state constitutional amendment for medical malpractice claims that applies.

But state attorneys disagreed. In their response, they argued that the Texas Whistleblower Act had no precedent in common law and was written for the modern need to protect public employees who report wrongdoing. The Texas Legislature adopted the cap to both encourage public employees to come forward and to acknowledge government immunity.

In other words, a large jury award wouldn’t necessarily punish wrongdoers. Instead, it would hamper government functions by forcing cities to spend resources defending lawsuits and leave taxpayers holding the bag, state attorneys wrote.

When Grim and Maynard first filed their lawsuit in July 2017, they claimed they had been fired after reporting that a council member leaked confidential information about the Denton Energy Center deal to the newspaper. The newspaper story ran in September 2016. The two employees were fired in July 2017.

According to city spokesperson Ryan Adams, the city continues to maintain that it did nothing wrong in employing, and firing, Grim and Maynard.

“Nevertheless, if any liability were imposed, the Attorney General’s action supports the position of the City of Denton that monetary damages are limited by statute,” Adams said in a prepared statement.

Attorneys for Grim and Maynard, the Kilgore law firm in Dallas, did not return a request for comment Monday afternoon.

Texas sales tax revenue dips 13.2% in May, the largest year-over-year decline in a decade

Texas collected about $2.6 billion in state sales tax revenue in May, leading to the steepest year-over-year decline in over a decade, Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced Monday.

The amount is 13.2% less than the roughly $3 billion the state collected in the same month last year.

A majority of the revenue collected last month was from purchases made in April and reflect the state’s first full-month look at how the novel coronavirus impacted businesses. That is when Texans lived under a statewide stay-at-home order and Gov. Greg Abbott, like leaders across the globe, ordered businesses across several sectors to close to combat the spread of the virus.

“Significant declines in sales tax receipts were evident in all major economic sectors, with the exception of telecommunications services,” Hegar said in a news release. “The steepest decline was in collections from oil and gas mining, as energy companies cut well drilling and completion spending following the crash in oil prices.”

Monday’s announcement is the latest reminder of the economic devastation facing the state — and how recovering from it could last months if not years even as businesses begin reopening their operations, which feed into the sales tax revenue. As social distancing guidelines continue to loosen, Hegar said, the sectors most impacted by the pandemic “should begin to slowly recover,” but “operations resuming at reduced capacity will result in continued reductions in employment, income and activity subject to sales tax for months to come.”

Monday’s numbers are also reflective of the lag in data as revenues are collected and then reported by the state. Last month, for example, Hegar announced that the sales tax revenue collections for purchases in March dropped roughly 9% — which at the time was the steepest decline since January 2010.

Other major tax collections were also down in May, Hegar said Monday. Motor fuel taxes, for example, were down 30% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop since 1989. And the hotel occupancy tax was down 86% from May 2019, marking the steepest drop on record in data since 1982.

State leaders are already beginning to offset some of the state’s losses, which will all but certainly be at the forefront of the next regular legislative session in 2021.

Abbott, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and retiring House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, instructed certain state agencies and higher education institutions last month to reduce their budgets by 5%. A number of agencies and programs were exempted from the directive, including the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Texas Workforce Commission and funding for school districts.

The agencies and programs excluded from the directive make up a majority of the state’s general revenue funding, according to the Legislative Budget Board, though the three GOP officials made clear that additional budget cuts could become necessary as the fiscal picture continues to come into focus.

Agencies subject to the 5% reductions have until June 15 to submit their plans for cuts to the governor’s office and the Legislative Budget Board.

Some Republicans have pushed for double-digit budget reductions, arguing the economic fallout merits such an action. After Hegar’s last announcement on sales tax revenue in May, the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus issued a statement calling on state agencies “to immediately identify a minimum of ten percent of non-essential expenditures to eliminate,” saying that “the need for strict fiscal responsibility going into the next legislative session” is clear.

At least one state agency has so far exceeded the 5% directive, with Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller announcing last week he had ordered the Texas Department of Agriculture to cut its budget by 10%.

“This is going to be a tough year for Texas families, and state government needs to tighten its belt along with everyone else,” Miller said in a news release. “While Texas might just be reopening, we will feel the economic impact of this pandemic for a long while.”

It’s unclear how much the initial 5% cuts will offset what’s expected to be a massive shortfall. State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat on the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement after the budget cut announcement that while she recognizes the economic fallout, it’s important the Legislature review all available options to address it “with careful and intentional consideration.”

“Texas state agencies were directed to institute similar spending reductions in 2010 to address a $27 billion revenue gap and achieved $1.2 billion in savings for their efforts,” Howard said. “Instructions at that time discouraged non-specific across-the-board reductions and required analyses of reductions’ potential impacts. More specific guidance from current leadership, similar to 2010 instructions, would serve this exercise well.”