by Fernando Ramirez
Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference on Wednesday detailing the construction of his new border wall.
Blaming Biden for abandoning Trump’s border wall, Abbott said Texas taxpayers would have to “step up.”
To begin paying for the border wall, Abbott said the state would transfer a “downpayment” of $250 million from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice over to the Governor’s Disaster Fund, which up until now, has been exclusively used to fund disaster-related grant and assistance programs for hurricanes, wildfires, and the pandemic.
Abbot set the stage to access those funds by issuing a disaster declaration at the Texas border earlier this month.
During Wednesday’s press conference, even the governor himself admitted to the oddity of using a disaster declaration to pay for border security.
“Now, the governor makes disaster declarations when we have hurricanes come in, sometimes when tornadoes occur, sometimes when floods may occur,” Abbott said. “I am unaware of a governor ever declaring a disaster at county requests because of the tidal wave of illegal immigrants coming across the border, wrecking havoc in communities and residents who live here in Texas.”
When asked how much the finished border wall would cost, Abbott didn’t have an answer. He said part of the $250 million would go to determining the total price tag of the border wall.
That’s extraordinary considering it’s hard to think of any other major state-funded infrastructure project in Texas with an unknown price tag that has hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars devoted to it anyway. (Imagine putting a down payment on a house without knowing the total cost!)
Democrats have already begun criticizing the governor for the move, especially in light of recent outages and messages by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas pleading with residents to conserve energy — a stark reminder that zero state dollars were appropriated to fixing the state’s isolated power grid this past session.
At the beginning of the session, Abbott requested $150 million for the state’s disaster fund — the largest sum ever requested by Abbot. The legislature instead delivered $110 million for the 2022-23 biennium.
Now, because of the politically motivated disaster declaration at the border, it seems Abbott will be getting his money and then some, for a personal project that appeals to the most rightwing elements of his base.
All of this coincides with Abbott’s Department of Public Safety-run “Operation Lone Star,” which has seen the state’s security and jailing agencies pivot to addressing border crossings.
The governor’s actions raise serious questions about the longtime erosion of the legislature’s authority when it comes to spending state dollars. If lawmakers wanted to finish Trump’s border wall — as legislation introduced by Republicans into the statehouse sought to — then they would have debated and voted to do so.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Senate Finance Chair Jane Nelson’s explanation for why Abbott had the authority to move hundreds of millions of dollars around while lawmakers were not in session did not inspire much confidence.
“When the governor issues a disaster declaration, the legislative budget board has the authority under article nine, section 14.04,” Nelson said. “My staff’s around somewhere. They’re shaking their head yes.”
The article refers to a section in the general appropriations bill dealing with disaster-related budget transfer authority, which in turn cites a section of the Texas Constitution that gives the governor and the legislative budget board (a 10-member board that includes Nelson, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan and other top Republicans) authority to move money around in between legislative session. That feature came via a constitutional amendment approved by Texas in 1985 to deal with unexpected budget issues.
Abbott and the Legislative Budget Board used that same budget authority last year to issue a five percent budget cut to state agencies during the pandemic. Even then, the lack of input from the legislature was a problem; the haphazardly arranged cuts targeted higher education, environmental protection, and other vital state functions that employed Texans.
The move by the governor and a small group of top Republicans to allocate $250 million for a border wall is certainly the most creative and abusive way that budget authority has been used. And it’s not too dissimilar to how Trump secured funding for the border wall in 2019.
When Congress refused to fund the border wall, Trump initiated the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. A month after the shutdown failed to bring about any appropriations for the border wall, Trump declared a national emergency at the border, which he used to transfer Department of Defense funding for the construction of the wall.
The move was criticized by Democrats and Republicans as unconstitutional and an abuse of power, including Sen. John Cornyn who sheepishly called it “a dangerous step,” presumably referring to the shaky precedence that worried other Republicans.
“If elected president, how would Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders use this precedent for a national disaster declaration to force the Green New Deal on the American people?” fretted one House Republican with a genuinely good idea.
Sixteen different states would go on to join a lawsuit against Trump’s executive order, arguing that it violated congressional powers. The litigation would reach the Supreme Court, where it was ultimately defeated.
In Texas, lawmakers in the statehouse this past session attempted to rein in the governor’s emergency powers in various ways, but those efforts failed.
What exactly is preventing Abbott from issuing an emergency order for other red-meat issues? Can Texans be confident that the 150 state representatives they elected to serve their communities have serious input in how the state budget, their tax dollars, are used?
It’s not clear anymore, but lawmakers may want to consider it when they return for a special session this year.