Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.
For weeks, officials at Houston's Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base have been working on a state grant proposal seeking funds that would allow them to revamp their air control tower. They say the upgrade would strengthen the base's ability to operate missions that protect the area from possible aerial attacks.
“With all the refineries and chemical plants around the Port of Houston, we’ve got major national security assets in the Houston area that really need to be protected," said John Martinec, chairman of the Ellington Field Task Force, a group created to prevent the base's closure and attract new missions. "Military value is extremely important to the country and therefore to the state of Texas."
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Officials also want to make the base's value clear enough that it won't be in danger the next time the U.S. Department of Defense chooses military bases to shutter. And with state grant money for military bases again available, officials at Ellington and other bases across the state will get a better chance to revamp their facilities.
Starting Sept. 1, the Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance Grant Program will have new funding to help military installations in Texas pay for new construction and renovate older facilities. The money could also be awarded to public junior colleges or the Texas State Technical College System to help train displaced defense workers. The program aims to provide state support for new or expanded military missions as well as shield military facilities in Texas from the next round of Base Realignment and Closure – a federal process that determines which bases close or are repurposed. Lawmakers appropriated $30 million to the grant program over the next two years.
Senate Bill 1358, by State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee, filled the empty grant fund and raised the maximum grant amount to $5 million, up from $2 million. It also brought the Texas Military Preparedness Commission, which assists the state's 15 installations, under the direct control of the governor. Previously, the commission was housed in the Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office — another department within the governor's office.
As states across the country boost the amenities and preparedness of their military bases, Texas needs to keep pace, said state Rep. Rick Miller, R-Sugar Land, a 30-year naval veteran who authored a law that restructures the Military Preparedness Commission.
Moving the commission directly under Gov. Greg Abbott's supervision will give Abbott more contact with commissioners and officials from Texas' military installations and help the state prioritize work on the bases, he said.
"There's $150 billion in economic value that these 15 bases provide to our state and to local communities," Miller said. "We need to have a strong defense, and Texas provides a great deal of that."
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States don't want to be caught unprepared for the next BRAC process, which has no set schedule. The U.S. Department of Defense decides to evaluate and reorganize bases when it feels it's necessary and after getting the OK from Congress. The last round took place in 2005, which means the Pentagon is likely to begin another round in the next few years.
The BRAC process is meant to be a cost-saving and efficiency assessment tool. A commission evaluates U.S. installations to measure their military value — criteria based on their potential to contribute to national defense.
Ten years ago, the BRAC process led to three major base closures in Texas: the Lone Star Army Ammunition Plant in Texarkana, the Naval Station Ingleside near Corpus Christi and the Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, according to the 2005 commission report. The closures are based in large part on BRAC scores that measure the condition of "land, facilities and associated airspace," the cost of operations and labor force, as well as the economic impact on the surrounding community.
Texas began its defense grant program in 1997 and has since awarded 40 different grants totaling $32 million to strengthen military facilities in the state. When the grant cap was $2 million, the average award totaled $800,601.
"When you consider what’s happening around the world with the buildup of the Chinese military, the resurgence of the Russian military and what’s happening in the Middle East with the terrorist activities," Miller said. "Now is not a time to be cutting.”
Here's a quick look at the Defense Economic Adjustment Assistance Grant Program, as outlined by the Office of the Governor:
- The first $15 million in grants will be available for distribution on Sept. 1.
- The Texas Military Preparedness Commission will begin accepting grant applications in late October.
- Two panels will assess applications: Staff members in the governor's office and members of the Military Preparedness Commission.
- Ideal projects include those that:
- Create or save jobs
- Significantly impact the community
- Have additional matching funds
- Have never received funding from the state program.
- Awards will be announced around Dec. 10.