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Texas budget committee approves $1.5 billion in state funds for construction of border barriers

 A Border Patrol agent watches as a group of migrants walk across the Rio Grande on their way to turn themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas, on June 15, 2021.
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
A Border Patrol agent watches as a group of migrants walk across the Rio Grande on their way to turn themselves in upon crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Del Rio, Texas, on June 15, 2021.

A Texas House budget writing committee approved a $1.5 billion appropriation on Monday for building more barriers on the state’s border with Mexico.

The allotment includes $1.2 billion in money for construction-ready projects in the border counties of Webb, Starr, Val Verde and Maverick. Additional funds would go toward land acquisitions and easements for future projects, bill author state Rep. Jacey Jetton, R-Richmond, told the House Committee on Appropriations.

The proposal, House Bill 6, addresses one of several priorities outlined by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who called a third special session of the Texas Legislature this month to address border security and other issues.

The GOP-led committee approved the measure despite pushback from Democrats. They cited a 2021 appropriation of nearly $1 billion, saying it resulted in less than a dozen miles of the state-built border wall Abbott championed after President Biden took office.

“What’s the purpose of the state stepping in into spending $1.5 billion of our monies when it could be used for public schools, when it could be used for teacher pay, it could be used for mental health treatment,” state Rep. Lina Ortega, D-El Paso, asked Jetton. “You’re telling us that $1.5 billion is only going to cover 50 miles of the border, which is 1,254 miles long.”

Jetton said lawmakers wouldn’t be in the situation if the Biden administration was doing its job and securing the border.

“The reason that we are talking about this today and the reason that we are talking about having to spend another $1.5 billion on this is because of the failure from the federal government to do this,” he said. “We have a problem on our southern border of millions of people crossing over illegally, some of which are very dangerous, some of which are victim of human trafficking and different crimes.”

Sarah Hicks, a senior advisor to the governor and the office’s budget director, tried to impress upon the panel that construction projects take time. She compared construction of the border wall to a highway project initiated by the Texas Department of Transportation: hundreds of millions need to be spent on land acquisition, pre-construction, planning and design, she said.

“Those processes can take years before contracts are ever let or signed, and road materials are laid,” she said. “Our discussion today, I think, is very analogous to that situation. Many of these same processes are at play.”

Questions of accountability

Democrats on Monday also took issue with what they called the vagueness of the bill, which state Rep. Armando Walle, D-Houston, noted was only a few paragraphs in length and doesn’t include language on metrics or accountability to measure the bill’s effectiveness. He also said the counties Jetton specified weren’t named in the text of the bill.

“The bill as filed today doesn’t speculate where these dollars would be spent, correct? It’s [up to] the discretion of the governor, and the [Texas] Facilities Commission” he asked. “You understand the consternation we have when we spend $1.5 billion in [general revenue] on a 16-line bill?”

Democrats also pressed Hicks and Mike Banks — a former Border Patrol agent who is currently the state’s so-called “border czar” and an advisor to Abbott — on whether any of the funding would be used to build barriers between Texas and other U.S. states. It was reported earlier this month that Abbott has ordered Texas National Guard soldiers to install razor wire along the Texas-New Mexico border to prevent migrants who cross the border into New Mexico from making their way to Texas.

“Is it the governor’s intent to spend this money only on the international border or our border with our neighboring states?” asked state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio.

Hicks stated her understanding was that the monies will only go toward a barrier on the international border but said she couldn’t commit to adding that provision to the bill until she saw the language of a proposed amendment.

In his closing, Banks said he believes barriers and walls slow down unauthorized traffic and free up agents to concentrate on other areas of the border.

“In 23 years in Border Patrol, everywhere I went, where we put up border infrastructure, a border wall, under whatever administration we did it, we reduced the number of agents that we need to patrol that area,” he said.

The hearing came as the number of apprehensions of unauthorized immigrants on the southern border continues to reach near-record levels under the Biden administration and as cities on the border continue sounding alarm bells over a lack of resources.

Customs and Border Protection agents encountered about 270,000 migrants on the state’s southern border, including 219,000 apprehensions by Border Patrol agents and 51,000 by agents at ports of entries. That’s a 16% increase from August’s 233,000, according to CBP statistics.

The bill was voted out on a party-line vote and could see floor action later this week as the Texas House reconvenes Wednesday.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom