Following the Texas Department of Public Safety’s request for $1 billion to expand the state’s unprecedented border security campaign, a powerful House member who authored the centerpiece of the current border-funding package is now questioning whether state taxpayers should continue to pay for a task that is primarily a federal responsibility.
“We’re heading into a budget where we don’t have billions of dollars in surplus,” said Dennis Bonnen, an Angleton Republican who heads the House Ways and Means Committee, at a Tuesday hearing of a separate committee that focuses on border security. “I’m not sure that the taxpayers of Texas, who are also taxpayers to the federal government, have untold tax dollars to support a role of the federal government.”
Bonnen said he was increasingly frustrated that federal agencies have not adequately secured the border. (The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol’s annual budget exceeds $13 billion, and total federal spending on border security and immigration efforts is more than $18 billion.)
“I’ll be candid. I’m starting to lose patience,” Bonnen said. “If the federal government and Border Patrol made this a real priority, they could resolve this problem.”
Bonnen’s comments come as state lawmakers brace for the legislative session that begins in January, when they will have to deal with decreasing revenue caused by low oil and gas prices, increasing demands on scandal-plagued programs for vulnerable children and, as always, calls for tax cuts.
Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus have instructed most state agencies to prepare for 4 percent budget cuts, but they exempted several spending areas, including border security.
The state’s border security program began in 2014, when then-Gov. Rick Perry responded to a surge in immigrants from Central America, many of whom were women and children, by declaring an emergency and sending Texas National Guard troops to the border.
The Legislature in 2015 approved $800 million over two years for border security and shifted the focal point of the campaign from the Guard to DPS, which is set to hire 250 new officers by the end of the year thanks to the funding package. Bonnen on Tuesday noted that “$800 million was a record, and it’s $800 million more than any other state has ever spent” on border security.
DPS Director Steve McCraw said that the $1 billion funding request for the 2018-19 budget is necessary despite competing demands for state resources.
“We wouldn’t ask for it if it wasn’t needed … especially at a time when the state treasury is not going to be large,” McCraw told reporters. “There are many needs, but at the same point in time, if asked what the Department of Public Safety needs to be able to augment or continue or sustain (the border security program), we’re going to be candid.”