Department of Public Stimulus

The Department of Public Safety, which is struggling financially, is planning to use $16 million of the federal stimulus dollars that Gov. Rick Perry begrudgingly accepted to plug a hole in the border security budget. The decision follows a mandate by Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus that state agencies cut 5 percent out of their budgets to meet an anticipated shortfall.

Security camera towers loom over the Rio Grande River.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is planning to use federal stimulus dollars that Gov. Rick Perry begrudgingly accepted from Washington to plug a hole in the border security budget.

The decision follows a mandate by Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus that state agencies chop 5 percent out of their bottom lines to meet an anticipated state budget shortfall. For the Department of Public Safety, which is already struggling financially, the cut ordered last month will mean a $14.6 million hit, and border security funds could take the brunt. The agency is proposing to cut $10.3 million in border security grants to local law enforcement, according to an internal e-mail from DPS director Steve McCraw obtained by the Tribune. "I'm not happy that the efforts on the border might be reduced because of this, but that’s part of operating a state agency," says Texas Public Safety Commission Chairman Allan Polunsky. "Sometimes you have to make hard decisions that are going to be problematic somewhere."

That hole in border funds, though, could be plugged with $16 million in federal stimulus funds that Perry had already planned to dole out to local agencies for border security operations. Perry groused about taking the $15 billion in stimulus funds that Washington sent to Texas last year and said the money should only be spent on one-time expenditures. Since 2006, Texas has dedicated more than $200 million to border security operations. Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger says his office has not yet reviewed the DPS proposal, but she says spending the stimulus dollars on border security makes sense. "These federal dollars are going for the purpose they should have been going for a long time before now," Cesinger says. "Securing the border is a federal responsibility."

Plans for the DPS border security cuts initially came as a shock to local sheriffs, says Don Reay, executive director of the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition. “If those cuts would have taken place, we would have been dry in the middle of the river,” Reay said. “We’re grateful for that opportunity with Recovery Act money.”

DPS was already $27.5 million in the hole in January, according to McCraw’s e-mail to agency staff earlier this week. He said DPS has been using money from unfilled jobs to keep the agency running. With the mandatory cuts coming on top of the shortfall, the agency will slice funds from several programs, but the largest chunk will come from the $21.9 mllion set aside for grants to border law enforcement agencies over a two-year period. DPS has proposed cutting nearly half that amount. “This would reduce overtime to local law enforcement about 43%,” McCraw wrote. He added that Perry’s office planned to give local departments $16 million for border operations.

Without the 5 percent cut, local law enforcement could have received as much $26 million in grants — the $10 million from DPS, plus the $16 million from stimulus funds — to pay officers overtime for border patrols. “We wished it was a supplement,” Reay says of the federal stimulus funds. But he said they’re just glad now that it’s a wash.

Polunsky says it came as no surprise that DPS is running short of funds. Lawmakers last year did not provide the agency enough money to keep gas in patrol cars and utilities running at agency facilities, he says. "Hopefully, in future sessions we’ll be fully funded, and we won't have to resort to cannablizing the budget, which is what I feel has taken place," Polunsky says. To cover the gas and utility costs, DPS is using money from about 400 unfilled positions, including some trooper jobs. "It was explained to us that really that was the only choice we had, which was why we went along with it in the end," Polunksy says. "But that’s really not a good way to run a railroad."

Lawmakers who oversee DPS and help write the state’s two-year budget were unaware the agency was already operating with a budget shortfall halfway through the budget period. State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, says it’s not uncommon for agency budgets to fall short. The Republican-led Legislature, he argues, is so zealous about saving money that in many cases agencies can’t provide basic services without using up more money than lawmakers had allotted. “It would be irresponsible in my judgment to cut public safety by any percentage,” Whitmire says. “If anything, we ought to be increasing it.”

The DPS, which is responsible for patrolling the state’s vast highway system, issuing driver licenses to millions of Texans, and planning for and responding to emergencies like hurricanes and wildfires, asked for more than $2.1 billion in the 2009 legislative session. Lawmakers gave the agency about $1.7 billion, or about $400 million less than it requested, to operate during 2010 and 2011. Whitmire says he worries the additional cuts could lead to chaos on the Texas side of the southern border — especially in the El Paso area, where violence in Juarez has been escalating for more than two years. “What somebody has to recognize and speak out about is, you either pay now or pay later,” Whitmire says. “You don’t have DPS officers and you’ll pay a lot more, because you’re going to lose communities along the border to Mexican cartels.”

State Rep. Tommy Merritt, R-Longview, says he is most concerned that DPS might be diverting money that could be used to recruit officers to instead just keep the lights on. Merritt leads the House Public Safety Committee, which is studying ways to address the shortage of DPS officers. “I thought we were having difficulty in filling slots (because of) recruitment, but it could be we’re not filling slots because it’s been the policy to divert funds somewhere else,” Merritt says.

Whitmire says there’s not much lawmakers can do while they’re out of session to help the DPS out of its financial jam. The solution, he says, will have to come when the Legislature reconvenes in 2011. But even that may not be much help, as state lawmakers are predicting a multi-billion-dollar budget shortfall in the next biennium. “I understand that we have some revenue issues,” Whitmire says, “but I also know that leadership has got to realize there’s direct negative damage done if you don’t provide basic services.”

 

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