Border Security and Battle Lines in Austin

Feb 13, 2015

It's about a month into the 84th Texas Legislative session, and this week saw the first cracks in any unified front among the state's Republican leadership.

Just like every Texas legislative session – ever, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and Speaker of the House won't always agree on things. And that was highlighted this week in the debate over border security.

On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick held a quick press conference to say the Senate would pass a budget bill that would keep Texas National Guard troops on the border – deployment that is set to end in March.

"I want the guard to stay on the border through the end of this fiscal year, which is August, which would allow the Legislature to make the decisions on keeping the guard there longer," Patrick said.

The Senate's budget includes enough money to keep the guard troops on the border another two years after August, along with a dramatic boost in funding for the Department of Public Safety to pay for its own increased activities along the border.

What does House Speaker Joe Straus think? He doesn't think Patrick has the ability to send troops to the border. He said so twice: once in a statement soon after the Patrick press conference, and then again during an interview with Jim Henson and the Texas Politics Project at UT-Austin.

"We only have one governor at a time. Our governor is Greg Abbott. He is the commander-in-chief of our state guard. And I was just repeating what was obvious. The commander-in-chief will make that decision," Straus said.

Beyond that, Straus wants a secure border, but he's not quite ready to just throw money and troops at the problem.

"What are we getting for that? How effective is it? How do you measure it?" Straus said. "Before we go doubling it again, I think we about to know what the metrics are, and what the smart way to approach what is obviously and clearly a very huge priority for the legislature."

At a House Appropriations hearing this week, the idea of efficiencies was a common theme. 

"I'm having a very difficult time justifying this amount of money being spent on an ill-defined definition of border security, on an ill-defined matrix," Houston Democrat Sylvester Turner said.

"This is unprecedented for us to call out the guard for this length of time. You weren't designed for it," Dayton Republican John Otto added.

Even the state's Adjutant General, the head of the state national guard, agreed. Since his troops are designed to be part-time, he said, long deployments affect morale, their jobs, their families and effectiveness. Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers there are more efficient, cheaper ways to patrol the border.

"We've talked about people. You can't do it with enough people. But you can dadgum sure do it with technology. The private sector's smart. And it gets smarter. Technology gets smaller, it gets faster, it gets easier, more affordable as time goes on. And I can assure you that we can lay a field, a technology field that you can't get through…period," McCraw said.

One plan that came out of the meeting was to shift National Guard duties from surveillance to installing the technology to allow surveillance.

Getting back to the differences of opinion between Speaker Straus and Lieutenant Governor Patrick. Does this disagreement mean anything? Yes, it means any legislation or dollars being considered for border security will be thoroughly debated and scrutinized until a solution that’s agreeable to both chambers and the Governor, emerges.