COVER: Soldiers attached to the Texas Army National Guard’s 36th Infantry Division observe a section of the Rio Grande at sunset on . The soldiers are serving at the Texas-Mexico border in support of Operation Strong Safety. PHOTO by RANDALL STILLINGER
by AMAN BATHEJA
AUSTIN — The state-funded buildup of law enforcement at the Texas border will continue into next year, as officials Monday approved another $86 million to keep the operation afloat.
The Legislative Budget Board unanimously approved the increased spending on the high-profile border surge operation that began in June in response to an influx of undocumented immigrants from Central America. The new round of money will pay to station hundreds of Department of Public Safety officers at the border through August, but only fund the deployment of National Guard troops there through March.
“Expanding DPS’s presence is the most effective way to use these resources and protect Texans,” House Speaker Joe Straus said.
DPS Executive Director Steve McCraw said his agency would use some of the money for technology that will allow a shift in the agency’s overall border strategy to “a saturation of cameras from a saturation of people.”
Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Straus hammered out the funding extension earlier this month, subject to LBB approval. Along with Straus and Dewhurst, the LBB includes four members each from the Texas House and Senate.
“If people are walking through your front door which is wide open and they’re committing crimes, what do you do? You close the door,” Dewhurst said. “That’s the same thing. We’re trying to close the door, but doing it as effectively and cost-efficiently as we can.”
State Sen. Dan Patrick, who will replace Dewhurst as lieutenant governor in January, criticized the current state leaders for not coming up with a funding plan that kept the National Guard troops at the border through the end of the fiscal year in August.
“Border security is a top priority for me,” Patrick said in a statement. “We should not be cutting back on funding for the National Guard at this critical time. I will address this issue immediately upon taking office in January so we can keep the National Guard on the border.”
More than half of the $86 million — $47.9 million — will come from money originally meant to pay off Texas Department of Transportation debt, which totals more than $15 billion. Another $17.5 million will come from money reserved to pay off other state debt managed by the Texas Public Finance Authority. The remaining $20.7 million will come from the state’s disaster funds and the Emerging Technology Fund, an economic incentive program run out of the governor’s office.
LBB Executive Director Ursula Parks told lawmakers that the money siphoned from TxDOT and the Finance Authority was not being spent because debt costs for the current biennium came in lower than expected.
State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, a persistent critic of the state’s reliance on debt, said lawmakers should direct those agencies to pay off their debt faster, instead of taking the money for other needs.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, echoed those concerns.
“I just think we need to be mindful that we get criticized on one hand for spending too much and then, when we are able to pay down the debt, we are directing it to something else,” Turner said.
Both Turner and state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen, the LBB’s two Democrats, questioned whether the LBB should finance the border surge instead surge of letting the Legislature pick a more sustainable path forward when it meets next year.
“I just don’t know that an emergency that existed in June of this year is still viewed as an emergency today,” Turner said.
McCraw said he believed the emergency situation at the border still exists, but it’s not an endless.
“I think the emergency can be eliminated at some point in time,” McCraw said. “This is not impossible.”
Hinojosa said the surge has “militarized the border” and that the money should be spent on strategies that make better use of local law enforcement.
State Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, doesn’t sit on the LBB but attended the meeting to urge lawmakers to add $30 million to their surge funding plan. That would allow National Guard troops to remain at the border until lawmakers in next legislative session decide if they should remain longer, he said. Otherwise, the guard troops will return to their civilian lives, and calling them back will be difficult, he warned.
“It is operationally disruptive,” Schaefer said. “It’s impractical. It’s just not the way you would treat the Texas military forces.”
AMAN BATHEJA reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is made available here through a news partnership between the Texas Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.Email | Print