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Lawmakers could face tough decision on border security funding

The author of the state's omnibus border security bill raised doubts Tuesday about whether lawmakers will want to provide hundreds of millions in additional money to continue operations.

Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

The main architect of the state’s record-setting border security bill said on Tuesday he’s concerned lawmakers will find it hard to keep funding the effort when they reconvene in Austin next year.

In 2015, the Texas Legislature approved $800 million for border security efforts, largely in response to an influx of Central Americans breaching the Texas-Mexico border. The main component was House Bill 11 by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, which funded 250 more state Department of Public Safety troopers on the border and flooded the area with cameras and other detection equipment. The measure was meant to stop the agency from rotating officers from the rest of the state in and out of the border area for temporary stints.

During a joint Texas House and Senate Committee hearing at the Capitol on Tuesday, Bonnen raised doubts that lawmakers will have the appetite to again approve hundreds of millions dollars for border security as the budget tightens ahead of the next session. Because of the drop in oil prices, budget writers will have less to work with than they had originally hoped — though how much less is still unknown.

“We’re heading into a budget where we don’t have billions of dollars in surplus,” he said. “I can’t speak for the entire Legislature, but $800 million was a record. And it’s $800 million more than any other state in the entire nation has ever spent in trying to meet the federal government’s job of securing the border.”

The hearing came after the DPS announced this summer that it would ask lawmakers for at least $300 million more to sustain the operation and hire hundreds more officers.

Bonnen argued more than once that the state wouldn’t be in a dilemma if the federal government took border security seriously. But he said there was no incentive for Washington to change its tune if Texas kept handling the situation.

 Texas DPS Director Steve McCraw told the committee he believes federal agencies like the U.S. Border Patrol have the state's and country’s best interest in mind. But he agreed that the higher-ups in Washington don’t consider border security a priority.

Though he said he understood lawmakers will have less money at their disposal, he said he wouldn’t hold back when the agency makes its request for additional funds.

“We recognize in terms of transportation, infrastructure, Child Protective Services, there are many needs,” he told reporters after his testimony. “But at the same point and time if asked, in terms of what the DPS needs to be able to augment or continue or sustain [the operation], we’re going to be candid. We’re going to be candid about what the threats are, and we are going to be candid about what resources are needed. And the members will decide.”

Bonnen also said he would like a more definitive answer on when the temporary trooper rotations will stop.

“We need to not harm the effort on the border, but we’ve got to quit [the rotations],” he told the Tribune after McCraw’s testimony. “The Legislature last session put the dollars that we were told [DPS] needed to stop sending local troopers out of our communities across the state to the border. That needs to be done as soon as possible. I think that needs to be done by the first of the year.”

McCraw told the committee that at last count, only 112 troopers were still rotating in and out of the border area, mainly from Dallas and the panhandle, and that 250 new troopers will be trained by the end of the year. But he also said he’s reluctant to give lawmakers a definitive date for when the rotations, which he has called inefficient several times in the past, will end. That’s partly due to how much training the agents need after leaving the academy, he said.

“Until I look at the circumstances, I’d hate to give you an exact date, but we’re going to try and get out of it as soon as possible,” he told Bonnen. “This has been a strain, not only on the agency but a strain on the men and women, and they’ve maintained this tempo for over two years.”

Other lawmakers expressed more patience on the budget and the rotations. State Rep. Larry Phillips, R-Sherman, said backing away from or trimming down the state’s border commitment isn’t an option.

“It doesn’t make sense, with the investment that we’ve paid so far, to retreat,” he said. “And we’re not going to retreat. I think we’ll find the money necessary to continue to do the job that we’ve started and see it through.”

Read more of the Tribune’s related coverage:

  • Other parts of Texas will continue to feel a public safety void while the Texas Department of Public Safety diverts resources to the border.
  • The Texas Department of Public Safety is nearing its goal of permanently assigning 250 additional troopers to the state’s border with Mexico. 

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