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Senators Debate Funding, Merits of National Guard Deployment

At a state Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday, senators debated the merits and tactical strategies of Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to send Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, during a Health and Human Services committee hearing on Feb. 19, 2013.

A panel of state senators on Tuesday debated the merits and tactical strategies of Gov. Rick Perry’s decision to send Texas National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, and the senators also discussed how the deployment would be funded in future months.

Republicans at the Senate Finance Committee hearing decried the federal government for abandoning its responsibility to secure the border, saying the Texas government should petition Washington for reimbursement over the next few months. But several Democrats pointed the finger at Perry, criticizing him for what they called an unnecessary deployment, undertaken for political reasons, that they said would be difficult to fund.

“The border has got to be secured. We’ve got to stop this,” said Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. But the federal government would have to step in to make the effort sustainable, she added. “Month by month, we’re draining state resources that should go to education, should go to highways, should go to water, and we can’t do it forever.”

Democratic Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen and Judith Zaffirini of Laredo emerged as the strongest critics of the deployment. Hinojosa said giving more funding to the Texas Department of Public Safety, which ramped up its border presence in June, would have been more effective than sending in the National Guard. Hinojosa voiced concerns that the National Guard’s concentration in the Rio Grande Valley would simply encourage smugglers and traffickers to move to Laredo and other points north.

"Those are issues that I think were not really thought out and planned out," he said.

Mike Morrissey, the governor’s deputy chief of staff and senior adviser, pushed back against such criticism at last week's Legislative Budget Board meeting. On Tuesday, he stood by the decision again, saying DPS was already overextended.

He was backed up at Tuesday's hearing by Adjutant General John Nichols, leader of the Texas National Guard, who emphasized that his troops would simply act as a supplementary force and a deterrent. Nichols added that the troops will have detention authority but not arrest authority, and that they are armed but only for self-defense.

Much of the discussion centered on Perry’s method of paying for the National Guard deployment, and how it might be maintained once the initial influx runs out. The governor used a little-known budget rider to classify the border crisis as an emergency and redirect $38 million in Department of Public Safety funding that was slated for emergency radio infrastructure.

Morrissey emphasized that Perry made the decision because it was better than the other two options: working with legislators through a “budget execution” process to find money elsewhere in the budget, or drawing on the disaster fund.

"Budget execution would always be our preferred option," he said, but Perry felt the need to act immediately. And the disaster fund was ruled out because depleting it could pose other dangers: "We didn’t want to act unilaterally when we were hearing concerns about hurricane season," Morrissey said.

Morrissey said Perry wanted to use budget execution with legislators over the next couple of months to procure the next round of funding.

National Guard and DPS costs will total $17 million to $18 million per month. Nichols said the costs for August will be somewhat lower, as many troops are still in training and not yet at the border, but the money will probably dry up by mid- to late October. Without a new infusion of financial support, he said, the Guard would then have to begin a gradual drawdown of troops.

Nichols added that four or five other states have offered assistance, and may provide more concrete help in the longer term once Texas solidifies its model over the next few months, though he did not specify which states.

The timeframe of the National Guard’s deployment surfaced as another point of contention: Hinojosa said the state needed to specify a duration, citing evidence that the number of border crossings has fallen this summer. Morrissey disagreed, arguing that a clear end date would merely give smugglers a waiting period before they knew they could resume operations, and saying border crossings often dip during the hot summer months before surging again in the fall.

Hinojosa said the National Guard deployment was damaging the Rio Grande Valley’s economy, forcing companies to reconsider moving there “because they think we’re in a war zone.”

Much discussion also focused on the strain that the new undocumented immigrants would place on the state’s education system and finances. Legislative Budget Board staffers testified that Texas public school systems in the upcoming school year are expected to absorb about 8,400 unaccompanied children — who have made up a large proportion of the recent influx — at a projected cost of roughly $75 million.

But upon senators’ questioning, it was unclear whether that price tag accounted for undocumented children who crossed with parents or other family members as well. If not, “we’re actually kind of scratching the surface here,” noted Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.

The uncertainty about the numbers — which could have major impacts on local school districts — irritated several senators. “It is terribly frustrating for everybody on this dais, I would believe, and it’s obvious that we don’t have the information necessary to make decisions,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown.

The hearing was the first under new chairwoman Nelson, who was welcomed by her fellow committee members at the beginning and in turn welcomed all senators, including those not on the committee, to participate. Sens. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, and Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, took her up on the offer, joining committee members on the dais.

Earlier in the four-hour hearing, committee members heard from a representative of the Office of the Comptroller and got a crash course in the basics of the Texas economy and budgeting process. In the subsequent discussion, Nelson raised the prospect of moving toward a zero-based budgeting process, which would force state agencies to start from the ground up in building their requested funding amounts, rather than taking the previous year’s allotment as the starting point.

House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, announced earlier Tuesday that a select group of agencies, including the Department of Transportation and DPS, would have their budgets scrutinized in closer detail this year in a pilot program seeking to move toward greater fiscal restraint.

Ursula Parks, director of the Legislative Budget Board, mentioned that directive in her testimony Tuesday. In response, Nelson asked if she would consider adding other agencies to the list. Though Parks said the LBB’s staff would probably be stretched thin on a short timeframe, Nelson said that within a few minutes, other committee members had already begun texting her agencies they’d like to see under the microscope.

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