McALLEN, RGV – The House Committee on Appropriations, which sets the state budget, is to study how $800 million in state funds provided for border security has been spent and if it has been used wisely.
The panel was directed to analyze border security funding by Joe Straus when, on Wednesday, the Texas House Speaker issued his interim charges for the various standing House committees.
Although a large majority of House members voted to provide $800 million for border security there has been a vocal minority who have questioned the decision to give the bulk of the funds to the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Interim Charge 16 for the House Committee on Appropriations reads: “Evaluate the effectiveness of the Department of Public Safety’s use of funds appropriated during the 84th legislative session for border security operations. Examine existing data and reporting on border security metrics, and recommend improvements to ensure the availability of accurate information in considering sustaining or increasing border security funds.”
Straus said of the interim charges: “The next legislative session is more than a year away, but the work of that session starts now. While these assignments cover a wide variety of issues, they focus on three core priorities: supporting private-sector growth, creating opportunity through education, and continuing to make government more transparent and accountable.”
Straus said many of the charges announced Wednesday were requested by members of the House. “I take my colleagues’ input very seriously. It was important that these charges reflect not only issues that matter to me, but also those that matter to House Members. I expect some very good ideas to emerge from the robust discussions that I hope committees will have over the next year.”
State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the decision to allocate $800 million for border security. Speaking at a legislative wrap-up event hosted by the McAllen Chamber of Commerce in July, Guillen said it was a “huge waste of money.”
Guillen said there would be little oversight on how the border security money would be spent. He made his comments just as the Dallas Morning News revealed that DPS Director Steve McCraw and 56 agency executives would be getting double-digit pay raises, with most increases reaching 17 percent.
Guillen said border legislators, who are all Democrats, worked with the Republican leadership in the House on most issues but found it tough to do so on border security. “We worked with them on it but we kind of held back and took a few million dollars for this and that as a consolation prize. But, by and large it is a big waste of money, this $800 million we spent. It is a huge, huge, waste of money and everybody knows it. Coming up with something that is smarter, smarter border security, that is what we tried to work with them on. I don’t think we got there,” Guillen said.
Guillen said there was an effort during the 84th Legislature to ensure accountability for how the $800 million would be spent but it did not amount to much.
“There was a big push to see outcome out of that money, to see some kind of a positive outcome, tell us what we are going to get for our money. There was no answer to that as we finished session. There will be no answer. We spent $800 million in border security. I think if $2 billion had been asked for, or $3 billion had been asked for, or $5 billion had been asked for, they would have got it. That was that one issue (where we could not work with Republicans)… It didn’t matter what the price tag was, it was going to happen. I just believe we have got to be smarter about how we spend our money. There has got to be a better way.”
One border official who will no doubt be pleased to see an interim charge being carried out on border security spending is Starr County Judge Eloy Vera. Speaking at a Texas Border Coalition meeting on South Padre Island in July, Vera said the so-called “border surge” played havoc with the local economy because a lot of people stayed indoors and did not go to work or the stores.
Vera says he expects things to get worse now DPS will be getting 250 additional state troopers.
“Of the additional 250 troopers, I can guarantee you 200 will be positioned in Starr County. That is just not right. When our citations go up 200 percent and in the rest of the state it lowers 50 percent, something is not right and it is not fair,” Vera said.
Vera started off his remarks by saying that nobody at the TBC event was opposed to securing the border with Mexico. “Definitely, we want to secure the border for our people, for our families and for the rest of the state and the country,” he said. However, Vera argued, Starr County was singled out for state trooper presence when then-Gov. Rick Perry implemented the border surge.
“We can’t go a quarter of a mile without seeing a DPS unit. I have spoken to some of them and they certainly don’t want to be here. I feel we don’t need them here. But, they are here today and now we are going to get additional 250 of them. I want to question the effectiveness of these people. I think they are totally ineffective. They are on the highway – they are not on the river. They just sit there, three or four units parked together, waiting for someone that they hope will be trafficking drugs or humans. But as far as them having any real intelligence, having any contact with our people, I do not think they have any of that.”
Vera added that the $800 million would have bene better spent had it been allocated to border sheriff’s offices, city police departments, and state game wardens, rather than DPS. “I think it would have had a tremendous effect, much more of an effect than bringing these people (DPS troopers) in for a couple of weeks at a time. I hope the troopers that are coming in will, hopefully, be stationed on the river not on the highway. I wonder if the money will be spent on equipping the troopers to work on the river. If you drive down the highway, most of them are not equipped to go down to the river. I think this is where they lose their effectiveness.”
Speaking on the Ron Whitlock Reports show in October, DPS Captain Hank Sibley said Starr County residents will see a permanent increase in DPS troopers in their county.
“We are going to have a permanent increase here. We are going to essentially triple our trooper force here, of Starr County troopers stationed in Starr County full-time,” Sibley said.
Sibley said a “new dynamic” will be at play. Rather than DPS troopers from around the state being rotated into the area for a week at a time, the Rio Grande Valley will see troopers permanently stationed in the region. Most of the deployments thus far have been in Starr County and western Hidalgo County because, DPS argues, most of the human and drug smuggling coming from across the Rio Grande occurs there.
Sibley was on the Whitlock show with Judge Vera. Vera told Whitlock that residents in the county feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of DPS troopers. Sibley used words like “saturation” to explain the presence of his agency in Starr County but said he feels sure that in time, local residents will come to appreciate the presence of DPS.
“I think we are in a situation where it is just the sheer volume of what is coming in the county. It is going to end up a positive for Starr County, I think, because it is going to make it less welcoming for the criminal element and more safer and more secure for the law-abiding citizens here,” Sibley said.
“I think once the incidents stop and things go back to the new norm, and there will be a new norm, it won’t ever be like it was, we do not want it to be like it was, in all aspects. But, once it calms down a little bit I think it is going to be a positive overall for the county and help in both the economic and the population growth.”
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story features Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw.