Key Republican legislator questions $1 billion border security request

After the Texas Department of Public Safety’s request for $1 billion over two years to expand the state’s unprecedented border security campaign, the legislator who authored the centerpiece of the current border-funding package is now questioning whether state taxpayers should continue to pay for what has traditionally been 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 Texas 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 haven’t 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.

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“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 grapple 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, R-San Antonio, have instructed most state agencies to prepare for 4 percent budget cuts, but they exempted several spending areas, including border security.

‘Needed’ spending

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 National Guard to the DPS, which is set to hire 250 new officers by the end of the year. 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 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.”

Detentions rising

Driven by poverty and gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, unauthorized immigrants from Central America are again sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border, with detentions back up to 2014 levels. Many of the unauthorized immigrants are families who turn themselves in to U.S. law enforcement in the hopes of being granted asylum.

The Border Patrol’s budget is larger than it ever has been under President Barack Obama, with more than 20,000 federal Border Patrol agents, more than 85 percent of whom are stationed along the Mexican border. Their ranks rose dramatically under former President George W. Bush from fewer than 10,000 in 2001 to over just over 20,000 in 2009. Under Obama, staffing levels peaked in 2011 at more than 21,000 and have since settled at around 2009 levels.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who co-chairs the border committee with Bonnen, said the state is receiving a benefit for its investment, but he also expressed concern about having Texas taxpayers foot the bill for border security activities.

“Our federal government has consistently failed in their duty to secure our southern border, leaving the safety of Texans solely in the hands of state and local law enforcement — but Texas does not operate on unlimited income, nor can we deficit spend like Washington,” Birdwell said in a statement. “My challenge is to carefully weigh the funding requests from DPS, the border security resources already in place, and, most importantly, the public safety needs of our citizens.”

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