Budget conferees vote not to fund DPS fusion center

In a surprising move, Texas House and Senate budget negotiators have agreed to wipe out funding for the Department of Public Safety’s fusion center, part of a nationwide intelligence gathering initiative that has generated controversy in Washington.

If the House and Senate affirm the change, it could make Texas the first state to pull the rug from under one of the statewide fusion operations that began under a Department of Homeland Security offensive that has been criticized for wasting taxpayers’ money.

“It’s shocking to me,” said Ron Brooks, a former director of the San Francisco fusion center who is now with a Washington D.C., consulting and lobbying group specializing in criminal intelligence issues. Despite their terrorism-focused origins, Brooks said the more than 70 fusion centers across the country have evolved into “all-crime centers” to coordinate information sharing among local, state and federal agencies. Such information sharing provides “smart policing” of everything from street gangs to homicide investigations, Brooks said.

He said he knows of no other state that has eliminated funds for a statewide center.

DPS requested close to $16 million over the next biennium to continue operating the Texas Fusion Center, where about 100 employees now work in offices located at the DPS headquarters. The House had eliminated money for the center in its version of the appropriations bill, and the conference committee that is hashing out the 2014-15 state budget concurred in that decision Monday.

A factor in that decision, according to budget documents crafted by the House, was an October 2012 report by a U.S. Senate investigative subcommittee that lambasted the fusion centers for “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate” intelligence gathering and wasteful spending on private contractors, while doing little to keep the country safer. Both the statewide fusion center and the one operated by the Austin Police Department opened toward the end of 2010, too late to be included in the Senate report.

Another issue raised in the budget documents has been the focus of much attention during this legislative session — the diversion of state money collected for one purpose to other uses. Currently the lion’s share of state funding for the DPS, $1.2 billion, comes from the highway fund.

It’s unclear whether the DPS could transfer money from its other operations to keep its fusion center going. Asked about that possibility, DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said that officials “do not discuss pending legislation.”

Some major budget issues are still pending, including a proposed pay raise for thousands of state law enforcement officers, most of whom are DPS troopers. But the fusion center is apparently not one of them.

Attempts to reach members of the conference committee for comment on the DPS budget were unsuccessful. However, Aaron Gregg, chief of staff for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, said it is unlikely the committee will revisit the decision to eliminate funding for the center.

DPS director Steve McCraw has vigorously defended the seven fusion centers that operate in Texas, saying they “enable law enforcement agencies at all levels to proactively address threats rather than merely react to them.”

Brooks said the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon was a “great example” of the usefulness of such centers. Though the fusion center in Boston didn’t prevent the attack, he said, it became the point of coordination among law enforcement agencies that resulted in the virtual lockdown of the city, and the eventual arrest of a suspect.

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