AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A panel of Texas lawmakers on Monday unanimously authorized spending another $86 million on the state's law enforcement surge at the Mexico border, a move that will allow National Guard units to be gradually replaced by state troopers and surveillance technology.
The 10 Senate and House members of the bipartisan Legislative Budget Board approved the extra funding, despite Democrats' concerns during the hearing about a "militarized" border. Some Republicans, meanwhile, worried that the National Guard may be needed for longer than planned if President Barack Obama's recent executive action on immigration sparks a new surge of people pouring into Texas illegally.
Gov. Rick Perry ordered up to 1,000 guardsmen to the Rio Grande Valley in July amid an unprecedented wave of illegal border crossings that has since slowed, claiming at the time the influx of immigrants had made it easier for drug and criminal games to operate. All guardsmen are set to head home by April.
The board's vote takes funding from other, mostly unrelated parts of the state budget, including money left over after other agencies paid down outstanding debts. It means the surge is now financed through August.
The extra funding covers overtime payments that will mean the equivalent of 640 additional state troopers and other police personnel, Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw said. He said that, unlike guardsman who couldn't make arrests, troopers can stop illegal activity, moving the state "from defense to offense."
McCraw said "saturating" the border had squeezed drug cartels operating there.
"We've hurt them," he said. "We need to hurt them more."
The number of unaccompanied minors — which accounted for much of the immigration influx — apprehended in South Texas dropped by 42 percent in October 2014 compared with October 2013.
And Texas Department of Public Safety statistics using Border Patrol data show that, during the first week of the state's Operation Strong Safety in late June, 6,606 people were apprehended where state forces were deployed. That number fell to 1,521 in the week ending Nov. 1.
Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat, voted in favor of the new funding because he said he supported the Department of Public Safety. But he added that deploying guardsman militarized the border, hurting tourism and economic growth.
"It sends the wrong message," Hinojosa said.
Houston Democratic Rep. Sylvester Turner wondered how much money would ultimately be needed to secure the border, saying "there's no money-making machine" inside the Legislature.
"I just don't know if the emergency that existed, that was in effect in June of this year, is still viewed as an emergency today," Turner said, referring to the influx of immigrants.
But Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who was defeated in the Republican primary in March, said "the emergency continues."
And if Texas allows the surge to expire, "The next day, it's business as usual for the cartels," said Dewhurst, who serves on the budget board along with House Speaker Joe Straus.
No one on the panel mentioned Obama's move last month shielding 4 million immigrants in the U.S. from deportation. But Republican Rep. Matt Krause waited to address it as an ordinary member of the public — warning that, when the National Guard is sent home, the border could be vulnerable to another spike of immigrants crossing illegally.
"Maybe we've had, because of the president's executive order, a significant uptick after Christmas," Krause speculated. "Maybe events turn and the numbers come back up."