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Even under Trump, state budget writers deliver big on border security funding

Texas budget writers plan to spend another $800 million for border security over the next two years, matching what lawmakers allocated in 2015.

Bundles of marijuana seized by Border Patrol and DPS agents near Roma, TX, on Mar. 8, 2016.

It’s apparently going to take a little bit longer to make America great again. At least on the Texas-Mexico border.

Despite initial hopes by some budget writers that Texas could possibly scale back its funding on border security after President Trump was elected, lawmakers are poised to again spend $800 million for state border security efforts for the 2018-19 fiscal years.

Lawmakers budgeted the same amount in 2015, a record for Texas at the time (they budgeted about $550 million the session before), saying it was needed because the Obama administration had abdicated its responsibility to secure the border.

“I think ultimately it’s a wait-and-see approach. I am confident that when we come back in 2019 that whoever’s in charge will probably scale back because we’ll probably see what the federal government does [by then],” said state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, the chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on public safety and criminal justice.

Like it did in 2015, the Texas Department of Public Safety will receive the lion’s share of the money, about $694 million. That total includes more than $428 million in baseline funding, about $146 million for a 50-hour work week for DPS officers statewide and $97 million for 250 additional troopers.

The trooper increase matches last budget’s hiring goal, which Longoria said is still needed due to the high rate of attrition at DPS.

“Once Operation Secure Texas scales back, which it’s going to eventually ... all those DPS officers will be pulled back to their respective counties,” he said.

One border Democrat said the funding effort flies in the face of what Republicans champion: fiscal responsibility.

“It’s disappointing that taxpayers are spending so much money with no metrics and no accountability [requirements] even with an administration that’s already committed to increasing [Customs and Border Protection] and Border Patrol agents,” said state Rep. César Blanco, an El Paso Democrat who has argued since 2015 that the state’s border security budget isn’t necessary because border cities have proven to be among the safest in the country.

Blanco said even the Trump administration claims the border is more secure since Trump took office.

In March, the Department of Homeland Security released statistics that showed apprehensions on the southwest border fell about 40 percent from January to February. Trump also pledged in a January executive order to hire 5,000 more Border Patrol agents and triple the number of Customs and Border Protection agents.

On Tuesday, Homeland Security announced it had requested $44 billion in discretionary budget authority, including “$4.5 billion for DHS to implement Executive Orders that strengthen border security, enhance enforcement of immigration laws, and ensure public safety in communities across the United States.”

But Longoria said there’s no way to tell how quickly the Trump administration is going to take to accomplish its hiring goal. And some law enforcement experts have cautioned that fast-tracking the hiring of additional federal agents could increase corruption by agents who aren’t vetted thoroughly.

“It’s going to be very tough to fill those [federal] spots,” Longoria said. “We want to make sure that if we scale back it won’t wither away what we’ve done up to this point.”

Aside from the DPS funding, the proposed state budget also includes about $53 million for border operations that are funded by the governor’s office, including $10.2 million for anti-gang activities and $12 million for prosecution.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is also poised to receive a significant increase from last session’s border security budget. The agency is scheduled to receive $33 million next biennium, compared to the $10 million allotted last session, according to the House-Senate budget conference committee report. The total includes $10.6 million for game wardens, $7 million for “extraordinary” operations and $4 million for a 65-foot vessel.

After two years of looking for money to eradicate an invasive plant on the border, the Texas State Soil and Water Conversation Board is slated to receive $3 million for the effort. Carrizo cane grows thick along the banks of the river and provides cover for human and drug smugglers seeking to enter the United States illegally.

After receiving just more than $1 million during the last budget cycle for special operations on the border, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission is slated to receive about $7 million for border expenditures and special operations.

The Legislature is still seeking federal reimbursement for what state and local governments have spent on border security.

“On a nearly weekly basis our office is engaged with the federal government on this issue," said John Wittman, a spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott. "The recent continuing resolution did not include funding for Texas’ request, but we will continuing to seek that funding.”

Read related Tribune coverage

  • As the Trump administration moves to expedite construction of a physical barrier on the southern border, it will also begin building more detention space for undocumented immigrants in the area and work to withhold federal dollars from entities that don’t enforce immigration laws.
  • U.S. and Mexican authorities are pushing back against reports of recent widespread raids that have sown panic in immigrant communities. But the “targeted operation” appears to be the largest of its kind since President Trump took office.

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