The Texas Department of Public Safety moved a a step closer to getting funding for hundreds of additional troopers Thursday after the House Appropriations Committee tentatively approved a $105 million agency request.
The money would go toward training 300 new officers and support staff. About 250 of those troopers would be stationed on the border, and lawmakers said the goal is to have them in place by the end of the 2016-17 biennium. A final state budget must still be approved by both chambers.
Since last summer, the DPS has had an increased presence on the Texas-Mexico border in response to the surge of unaccompanied minors and family units, mainly from Central America, who breached the border. The Texas National Guard has also deployed soldiers to the border.
The funding request is a sliver of the DPS’s estimated $2.2 billion proposed baseline budget, but it was still met with some resistance from border lawmakers who questioned how and where the officers would be deployed.
“El Paso is very different from Brownsville and Hidalgo [County], and the needs are different,” state Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso, said. “Does that conversation happen at all, or does border security just get lumped into El Paso to Brownsville? Are we putting this issue under the same scrutiny that we put other agencies under when we’re talking about an increase in [full-time employees]?”
State Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, the committee chairman, said that decision would ultimately be up to DPS. He added that the end goal is to withdraw the Texas National Guard, which has had hundreds of troops in the Rio Grande Valley since last summer.
Removing the troops is something most border lawmakers have been lobbying for as they have said soldiers on the border harms the area’s image and scares away businesses.
“The need has been expressed for 250 of them to be deployed along the border,” Otto said. “I certainly am not qualified to go tell DPS how they should be deployed.”
Otto reminded the budget-writing committee that lawmakers initially asked for 500 new troopers, which DPS officials said wouldn’t be possible in such a short timeframe. But border Democrats also wanted to know what mechanisms, if any, will be offered to measure the success of the surge. The concern stems from testimony last month by DPS Director Steve McCraw. He told the Senate Finance Committee that the surge is working but lacks efficiency because troopers have to be rotated in and out of the area, which costs money.
State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, the Appropriations Committee vice chairman, said the budget request would include a rider that will seek to keep the agency accountable by reporting how the money is being spent on the border.
State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, D-Palmview, said the entire agency should be placed under scrutiny.
“In my opinion, law enforcement concerns are about issues all over the state,” he said. “My concern is, how are we measuring success? What are the metrics? We should address the inefficiencies before adding more manpower.”
Lawmakers also want more answers on how the deployment of hundreds of border cameras is working. McCraw testified last month that the department’s goal is to transition from “boots on the ground” to a combination of officers and technology. But state Rep. Helen Giddings, D-DeSoto, said the agency hasn’t provided enough guidance on that.
“There is a desire on my part to be fully supportive of what the head of the agency says we need to do there,” she said. “There is not enough information here for a full assessment of that.”
According to a timeline of the camera-installation project provided by the office of state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, members of the Texas National Guard reported to the border on March 2 to begin installation of 500 cameras “to strategically pre-designated areas along the border.”