Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Border Security and Texas Budget Crisis

Operation Border Star Map

Texas is facing a mammoth budget deficit – as much as $27 billion in the 2012-13 biennial budget. But there is little that can be easily cut.  Texas, according to the Dallas Morning News, ranks dead last in the per-capita state spending.

All state services, especially education and health, face massive budget cuts. On the existential chopping block are entire state agencies, community colleges, and, if some Republican politicians have their way, the state’s Medicaid program.  

But the state’s border-security program, which didn’t exist prior to fiscal year 2008, is being treated gently by state legislators. Republican state senators have even proposed a half-million dollar increase in the existing $111-million two-year budget for border-security operations.  The House had previously proposed cutting $34.4 million from the border-security budget, which the Legislative Budget Board said was primarily due to the “discontinuation of federal stimulus funding” and the reduced need for major purchases, like helicopters for the Texas Rangers.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Steven Ogden said that there could be no backing away from the commitment to the state’s security. Noting the increase funding for border security operations, Ogden said: "That was a conscious decision that the first responsibility of government is to provide for the security of the people."

Politics and ideology figure largely into law-making in Austin. Faced with an unprecedented shortfall between expected revenues and expenses, Republican state senators started the legislative season by passing -- in a 19-11 party-line vote -- a thinly disguised anti-immigrant bill to require enhanced identification voter-identification requirements. While Republicans assert that voter fraud is widespread, the minority Democrats contended that the proposed requirements constitute an unfair burden on the poor, the elderly, and nonwhite citizens.

The Republican leadership in Texas, in contrast to Arizona Republicans, has steered away from explicitly anti-immigrant laws and law-enforcement measures. Instead, Perry and other Republican politicians have tapped latent anti-immigrant sentiment through initiatives that stress upholding the rule of law and protecting Texans.

Over the past five years Gov. Rick Perry has lambasted the federal government for not enforcing immigration law and not securing the Texas border. Perry’s criticism of Washington’s border control efforts and promotion of his own commitment to “secure the border for Texans” were central themes of his election campaigns in the 2006 and 2010 gubernatorial contests.  

Called Operation Border Star, Gov. Perry’s border-security operations have been funded largely with criminal-justice assistance grants from the Justice Department, including an infusion of stimulus funding in 2009-2010 from the Obama administration’s recovery act. For the past four years, Perry has also succeeded in winning state budget support for Border Star.

Despite the hundreds of millions dollars spent for state-initiated border-security operations, neither the governor nor Steve McCraw, the state’s homeland security and public safety director, have provided documentation of the impact of Border Star. The Department of Public Safety has denied public-records requests for the department’s border security plan and for the monthly progress reports from its border security operations. 

Perry calls Border Star the “Texas model of border security.” But Texans are hard put to describe what exactly this model is – other than pronouncements about Texas standing in where the federal government has failed.  One reason that it is so difficult to grasp the Texas model is that it has been largely outsourced to a Washington Beltway security consulting firm called Abrams Learning & Information Systems.  For the past several years, ALIS has been contracted by DPS to, among other things, formulate the state’s border security strategy and operate its Border Security Operations Center.

Texas Republicans have been the leading border security hawks both in the state and in Texas. Sen. John Cornyn has provided key earmark funding to support the Texas Border Sheriffs Coalition, and last month stepped up his demand for federal funding for local border security initiatives. “This is a real national challenge. It is not just a local problem, which is the way Washington traditionally looks at the border,” Cornyn said in a January 5 speech in Brownsville. “This is a federal responsibility. … I will demand my colleagues in Congress step up to support our local leaders.”

But Texas Democrats, eager not to look like border security wimps, have not mounted any effective opposition to Perry’s border security initiatives. Parsing the budget and security issues, State Sen. Eddie Lucero, Jr. (D-Brownsville), said, “As we undergo what looks likely to be a very painful budget process, I think we can all agree that the integrity of the border and the importance of trade with Mexico are too vital to endure the impacts of budget cuts.”

Regarding the state’s border security budget, Lucy Nashed, the governor’s spokeswoman, said: “The governor continues to see the value of funding border security operations in Texas. That is a big priority of his to make sure, in the absence of federal resources that we are not getting, that we continue to protect Texans on the border.”

The Texas model of border security has since 2004 been dependent on federal funding, both from the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. The governor’s office channeled $39.5 million in stimulus funding from DOJ to Border Star.

With the drop-off in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the gaping holes in the Texas state budget will no longer be plugged by the windfall in stimulus grants. The state already faced this in the last biennial budget as the initial rush of stimulus funding in 2009 fell off in fiscal years 2010 and 2011.

In the last biennial budget (2010-11), the state suffered a 39% decrease in federal funding. Nonetheless, Texas received $72.5 billion from Washington – out of the total budget of $182 million. The state’s Legislative Budget Board is projecting an additional 32% decrease in the coming 2012-13 biennium – down to $50.6 billion.

It’s little wonder that Texas is facing an unprecedented fiscal crisis. It has depended largely on federal spending and sales tax revenue to underwrite its budget. Gov. Perry boasts of the business and investment friendly climate of Texas.

That’s no idle boast. Texas is one of the few states without a personal income tax. Nor does Texas have a corporate income tax. The tax burden from state and local taxes in Texas is $3,580 – about 8.4% of average income. Forty two states have higher tax burdens than Texas.

Texans face a bleak future. The governor and the Republican leadership have forsworn not to raise taxes to cover the budget abyss. So they are set to drastically cut medical and educational services, perhaps even opting out of Medicaid.

Texas Republicans have other priorities – brandishing their border security blunderbuss and Tea Party anti-tax, anti-Washington credentials.

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