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With Trump in D.C., Texas might spend less on border

If President-Elect Donald Trump delivers on his promise to dramatically beef up security on the U.S.-Mexico border, leading Texas lawmakers say they might quit spending so much state tax money on it.

From Roma, Texas, Border Patrol Agent Isaac Villegas looks out over the Rio Grande and into Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico, on March 8, 2016.

If President-Elect Donald Trump delivers on his promise to dramatically beef up security on the U.S.-Mexico border, leading Texas lawmakers say they might quit spending so much state tax money on it.

With a tight Texas budget session ahead in 2017, state legislators are already looking for every available dollar. Not having to spend $800 million on border security — the amount allocated in the previous two-year budget — would amount to a huge financial windfall at the state Capitol. Not counting federal funds, the Legislature spent about $114 billion in the last budget.

"We’ve been spending a lot of state resources on issues associated with the border, border security, transnational gangs, human trafficking, so I look forward to maybe holding back on some of that money, actually,” said Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. "There’s all sorts of talk about what an administration that will work with Texas border states can do. It’s kind of a new day."

No one knows for sure what promises Washington will actually deliver on. Already Trump's vows to undo the North American Free Trade Agreement, rip up the Iranian nuclear deal and impose term limits on Congress are meeting the reality of financial markets, geopolitics and entrenched government bureaucracy.

With the uncertainty in Washington in mind, Republican state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, author of the border security package in the Texas House of Representatives, said he wants Texas, which straddles two-thirds of the U.S-Mexico border, to keep a robust presence along the international boundary until lawmakers see what concrete steps are taken in a Trump Administration. 

"I am not going to make any statements one direction or the other until we have clarity of what the federal plan is and how we can work well with them to continue to cover the border region," said Bonnen, who is from Angleton. "Until we find out whether they are serious in Washington about finally meeting their responsibility, we have to continue to fill the hole here in Texas."

Still, Bonnen said Trump's victory "certainly should change the dynamic of the federal government meeting their responsibility, and I hope they will improve the effort from the federal government’s side on the border."

"It may not have the comfort and impact us [enough] to pull back in the efforts the state of Texas has made this session, but it certainly should create the opportunity to see the following session," Bonnen said. 

Spokesmen for the top three leaders in state government — Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio — offered no immediate comment about the implications a Trump presidency will have on state border security spending.

The Legislature's 2015 passage of an $800 million border spending package — providing boots on the ground, technological barriers and beefed-up intelligence gathering — became a major talking point in virtually every Texas Republican's standard stump speech. But Barack Obama was still halfway into his second term and, until Trump's stunning upset victory this week, Hillary Clinton looked like his most likely successor.

Now the brash-talking Republican will get a chance to make good on his vow to accomplish on the border what state leaders say they've been wanting Washington to do for years.

"Logic would say if you finally have an administration that finally recognizes their role, then maybe that $800 million can stay with the Texas taxpayers," said Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, who sits on the Legislature's joint border security panel. "I think you're going to see a whole new mindset."

One item Perry expects to significantly change: plans to build a physical wall on the border. That oft-repeated Trump promise, along with his claim that Mexico would pay for it, ended up being the billionaire businessman's biggest applause line at his rallies.

But Perry said there are many places on the Texas-Mexico border where that won't be practical. Though some additional barriers may go up in urban areas long the border, he predicted Washington would investigate the issue and lean more toward technology — and less toward physical structures — to keep people and drugs out.

"Now that he's kind of gotten over the campaign side of it, I think he'll take the time to investigate it," Perry said. "It's not practical to put up a wall on every part of it."

Read related Tribune coverage here:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott signed House Bill 11, capping off the final piece of a massive effort by lawmakers to bolster the ranks of state police, increase technology and establish intelligence operations units on the Texas-Mexico border.
  • Some undocumented immigrants brought here as kids were granted a sort of legal status by President Barack Obama. They're in a state of shock and panic now that Donald Trump has won the White House. 

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Border Dan Patrick Department of Public Safety Greg Abbott Joe Straus