By Jonathan Tilove
Texas National Guard units will leave the Rio Grande Valley by early spring, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said Wednesday, entrusting the extension of the so-called law enforcement surge along the border to state police and game wardens.
At a Capitol news conference, Dewhurst offered a more complete and accurate explanation of the agreement reached by him, Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus on extending the surge through the end of August, than what was contained in a joint communique issued Tuesday by the Big Three of Texas government.
That statement left the impression that the Texas National Guard, deployed by Perry in July, would continue to be an integral part of the enhanced border enforcement effort through the end of the fiscal year.
The Guard deployment has been Perry's calling card as he travels to early presidential primary states ahead of a possible 2016 run, appealing to conservative audiences by saying that he's doing what President Barack Obama has failed to do _ secure the border.
Tuesday's announcement that $86.1 million in state funding would be redirected to the mission, pending approval by the Legislative Budget Board at its Dec. 1 meeting, stated that, "Effective Dec. 1 through August 2015, the funding agreement would transfer FY15 funding to extend the presence of personnel from the Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Military Forces and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department along the border." Texas Military Forces refers to the Guard.
But, according to a copy of the budget execution proposal signed by Perry, Dewhurst and Straus and released by Dewhurst's office after his news conference Wednesday, only $17.5 million of the redirected funding would underwrite the Guard deployment, which costs about $10 million a month. Guard funding will run out at the end of March.
Perry had ordered the deployment of as many as 1,000 troops, and Dewhurst said Wednesday the National Guard presence along the Mexican border would be drawn down by March or April. But, because the Guard costs more than the DPS to deploy, Dewhurst said that even as the Guard withdraws, the state will be able to have more "boots on the ground" through the use of DPS and Texas Parks and Wildlife personnel.
"What he said is consistent with the leadership's agreement," Perry spokesman Lucy Nashed said Wednesday of Dewhurst's explanation of the phasing out of the Guard's role.
Asked by email Tuesday how many Guard units were currently deployed along the border and how many will be there through August, Nashed replied, "The intent of the National Guard deployment was to provide a robust force multiplier to DPS's efforts with Operation Strong Safety. As the operation evolves, leadership will continue to ensure we use the appropriate combination of personnel, technology and other resources to meet the changing security needs of the border region, and we expect that to be discussed at the (Legislative Budget Board) meeting."
Perry discussed immigration and border policy Wednesday in an appearance at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., saying that Texas is spending $12 million a month to secure the border because Washington won't.
Gov.-elect Greg Abbott also attended the governors meeting. His staff did not respond to questions about the plan to draw down the Guard presence, but his border security plan, which would cost $299 million over two years, hinges on a big increase in DPS spending and not on the Guard, whose presence on the border has been viewed by critics as an expensive and unnecessary political flourish that made the border region appear more dangerous than it actually is.
But Dewhurst said, "The surge is working; it's important that we keep it working."
He said that in June 2014 _ the month the additional DPS troopers were dispatched to the border _ there were 6,600 apprehensions in the Rio Grande Valley sector, but, "the last week in October, that number's down to 1,600; that's a 77 percent drop."
State Rep. Donna Howard, a Democrat who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and on the state's Select Committee on the Fiscal Impact of Texas Border Support Operations, said there are no firm metrics of success.
She also said that the additional funding to extend the border operation could have waited until the new legislative session and that repurposing funds were a bugaboo for many legislators.
(c)2014 Austin American-Statesman, Texas