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Texas has spent over $4 billion on Operation Lone Star. Where did that money come from?

 Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

With a lack of concrete results and about a year left in the state’s two-year budget cycle, it’s unclear whether Texas can afford to continue running the border security initiative in its current form.

For much of the past two years, a significant portion of Texas’ budget has gone toward Operation Lone Star, the border security mission backed by Gov. Greg Abbott. At its peak, the operation involved more than 10,000 Texas National Guard troops stationed at the Texas-Mexico border.

According to the state, they were there to stem the flow of drugs and people into the United States — but there’s not much evidence that that’s happened. To date, it’s cost more than $4 billion to keep Operation Lone Star up and running.

Bob Garrett, Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News, has been researching how money has been set aside for Operation Lone Star and shared his insights with Texas Standard.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Can you break down some of the ways in which the state has paid for Operation Lone Star?

Bob Garrett: The normal course of business is when the Legislature meets every two years, they make a budget. All the competing demands are put in a basket, and they sort out who gets what.

They did that to fund Operation Lone Star in 2021, and increased the program’s budget just a few months into Joe Biden’s presidency. They increased the state’s spending on border security from $800 million for two years to $1.1 billion. Then they came back in the fall in a special session, and Abbott asked for $1.8 billion.

Then, they came back for more this year. Using federal COVID-19 aid to free up state discretionary dollars, they’ve added about another billion this year. It’s been a sort of back room process where a lot of aides to Abbott and to the lieutenant governor and the speaker are pretty much calling the shots.

Our elected officials are in Austin for months creating a budget and somehow, more and more money seems to get poured into Operation Lone Star. How does that occur outside of the regular budget process? 

I think that the Legislature has ceded a lot of power on the budget to the executive branch over Greg Abbott’s eight years. One thing you can’t take your eyes off of is that Abbott knew that he was going to have primary challengers when the Legislature last had a regular session. But it wasn’t until the fall of last year that his challengers, Don Huffines and Allen West, were blasting Abbott on Tucker Carlson’s show for only having 2,500 National Guard soldiers at the border. So, Abbott panicked and he went to 10,000 soldiers.

We see some signs that this is now decreasing. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when we get past this November election. If Abbott wins, he might significantly roll it back, because I think the Republicans would rather spend money on property tax cuts next year than maintain a $5 billion expenditure on the border. But I think he’ll mask it by saying that we’ve learned how to be more efficient and selective in where we put troops and soldiers.

Was the governor able to use some sort of emergency power here? What gives him the ability to do this this year? 

Twice — in January and in April — they used a disaster feature in the budget that was passed back in the 2019 session. It allowed money to be moved around more quickly in a disaster. The governor declared the situation at the border a disaster, and he also had the pandemic disaster. So, he had two disasters going at once.

They used that to override a lot of customary practices. For instance, they went back into a two-year budget that had already been closed out on Aug. 31, 2021, and they actually took general revenue — state money — out of it and rolled it forward. That’s not happened before. You have to have the Legislature do that. But it doesn’t look like anybody is going to challenge it. And I should point out that the latest Texas Politics Project poll shows that something like 60% of the public thinks we’re either spending the right amount on the budget or too little. So far, I think Abbott has popular support for what they’re doing.

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Copyright 2022 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

Glorie G. Martinez
Rhonda is the newest member of the KUT News team, joining in late 2013 as producer for KUT's new daily news program, The Texas Standard. Rhonda will forever be known as the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first full-time hire for The Texas Standard?” She’s an Iowa native who got her start in public radio at WFSU in Tallahassee, while getting her Master's Degree in Library Science at Florida State University. Prior to joining KUT and The Texas Standard, Rhonda was a producer for Wisconsin Public Radio.