The lone border lawmaker on the 10-member state budget conference committee said he thinks the House and Senate are closer to an agreement on border security funding than differences between their two budget plans might suggest.
The biggest issue separating the chambers might not be the continued deployment of the Texas National Guard to the Rio Grande valley, but instead how Texas Department of Public Safety troopers are scheduled and paid.
"In reality we are not that far apart," said state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, the vice chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "Both the House and the Senate have the same objective at some point: to phase out the National Guard as we build up some of our local and civilian law enforcement.”
Former Gov. Rick Perry sent extra state troopers and the National Guard to the Rio Grande Valley last summer in response to the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrived in Texas. Because the current budget doesn't fund the deployment, more than $32 million was transferred from DPS's radio infrastructure fund to help pay for the effort. Now lawmakers must find a way to maintain the continuing border efforts.
The House and Senate budget bills are about $285 million apart on border security funding.
The Senate allocated about $811 million in general revenue funds, $753 million going to DPS. When federal grants are added in, the total Senate package is about $850 million. That’s compared with the House’s $565 million, $551 million of which goes to DPS.
A key difference, said Hinojosa and House Appropriations Vice Chairman Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, is the Senate’s inclusion of a 10-hour workday for DPS troopers statewide. The House includes that schedule only for troopers on the border, whose ranks will be increased by at least 250 before the end of the next biennium.
"That in itself is several hundred million dollars,” Hinojosa said. “I think we should support the entire state police force. We have received quite a few complaints from different regions of the state that they do not have the same type of presence that they used to have.”
Turner said the Senate's approach carries a price tag of about $200 million more, which he's not inclined to pay.
"I don’t see the need for that, and I still think the budget needs to respond to specific needs and demands,” he said.
The prospect of keeping the National Guard on the border has been better received in the Senate than the House, which the budget proposals reflect. The House zeros out deployment funding after this year, but does include about $49 million to renovate some National Guard facilities.
In the Senate version, funding for the National Guard into the next biennium is provided by a rider to the DPS funding directing the agencies to hash out when and how much money to transfer from DPS to the guard if needed.
Since June, Hinojosa hasn’t been quiet about his opposition to the guard’s deployment. And he isn’t changing his mind as the budget conferees get ready to tangle over the budget.
“We’re in a transition period. There is a general consensus that the National Guard should be phased out,” he said. “And obviously, for those that live along the border, we don’t want the National Guard. It sends the wrong image. At the same time, it’s not good for business.”