Texas could soon double the state’s spending on border security initiatives under a new proposal approved Tuesday by a House committee.
House Bill 9, drafted at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott, would spend $1.8 billion over the next year to deploy more state law enforcement officers to the U.S.-Mexico border, increase prosecutions of migrants arrested for misdemeanor offenses and complete portions of permanent and temporary physical barriers along the border, amid an ongoing surge of migrants crossing the border.
If adopted, the proposal would be an unprecedented investment in border security by the Legislature, where lawmakers have debated for more than a decade what role state dollars and resources should play when it comes to border security — an issue largely under the jurisdiction of federal law enforcement.
The money would be in addition to nearly $1.1 billion approved by Texas lawmakers in May for border security initiatives for the next two years, including the hiring of more than 100 new state troopers and funding Operation Lone Star, a mission launched in March to reduce the smuggling of people and drugs into the state.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday grilled local sheriffs and agency leaders about how the $1.8 billion would be spent and what measures would be used to monitor implementation of initiatives funded by the bill.
Dollars for barriers
Included in the bill is roughly $750 million for construction of portions of a physical barrier along the border. Earlier this summer, Abbott announced that he planned to build a state-constructed border wall, funded through private donations and investments from the state. He previously spent $250 million of state funding on what he called a “down payment” for the barrier.
“My concern is the governor’s prioritization of structures and barriers, versus giving money to the local law enforcement who obviously have a high need,” said Rep. Mary Gonzalez, D-El Paso.
Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, said more resources should go to local law enforcement, adding that the state needs to be smart about this spending “and not just throw money at an issue just for the sake of throwing money at it.”
Lawmakers have a limited window to debate and approve the spending bill, with less than two weeks remaining in the second special legislative session of the summer. The panel approved the bill 14-8, along party lines.
The bill offers few specifics about where money will be spent and a fiscal analysis of the legislation produced by the Legislative Budget Board only included the complete price-tag for the proposal: $1,802,607,003.
Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and the author of the proposal and chairman of the budget-writing committee, and Sarah Hicks, policy and budget director for the governor’s office, offered some details during Tuesday’s hearing about where the money would go.
Here is a look at how the money would be spent, according to Bonnen and Hicks:
** $1.02 billion to trusteed programs within the governor’s office, which includes up to $750 million for construction of a physical barrier, $170.3 million to create three county-level processing centers, $100 million for grants to be distributed to local governments and $3.8 million on training for county and district attorneys for “border security related prosecutions,” Bonnen said.
** $301 million to the Texas Military Department to deploy more than 4,000 National Guard soldiers to various duties, including assisting local law enforcement and assisting state troopers with “detaining and arresting criminal trespassers,” according to Bonnen.
** $273.7 million to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to convert three state detention centers in the border region to be able to house jail offenders and to repay the agency after Abbott redirected $250 million in funding for the agency to be used as a “down payment” for construction of a physical barrier at the border.
** $154.8 million to provide 52 weeks overtime pay for troopers working on border operations.
** $32.5 million to the Office of Court Administration to provide “indigent defense services to those accused of state crimes, courtroom interpreters and remote hearing capabilities to facilitate border security-related criminal cases,” Bonnen said.
** $16.4 million to the Texas Department of State Health Services for four additional ambulances in border regions.
Arrests at the border
As lawmakers discussed the proposal, Abbott issued a statement saying National Guard troops are “playing an unprecedented role to secure the border because of the unprecedented refusal of the federal government to fulfill its obligations under federal law.”
Generally speaking, state and local law enforcement do not have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. However, they are able to provide direct assistance to federal agents to serve as a deterrent and they can detect criminal activity in violation of state laws.
A bundle of money in the bill will go toward training law enforcement officers and local officials on a new state initiative unveiled by Abbott in June: arresting migrants for trespassing, a state criminal charge, and jailing them once they cross the Texas-Mexico border.
Democrats at the hearing questioned Hicks about how those arrests would help reduce illegal crossings and whether they would further burden the state and local criminal justice systems.
“It’s one more way to make it less attractive to cross the border, not within the legal ways, into Texas,” Hicks said. “We’ve had a long conversation about how complicated it is, and I think doing nothing isn’t an option. So to the degree not only do individuals know but the cartels and smugglers sending them here know that it’s not just about getting them across the border and they can get their payment — it may get hung up.
“To the degree any of that is communicated south of the Texas border, that helps Texans.”
Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, said she was not satisfied with that justification for the funding.
“That’s a lot of money to ask for what is, in all likelihood, a completely ineffective deterrent,” she said. “I think we need more here than, ‘We can’t do nothing, therefore we’re going to do this.’ What evidence do y’all have that this will be effective as a deterrent when we hear our border sheriffs describing desperate people who are crossing despite real risks to their lives?”
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