Will Border Crisis Spur a Special Session?

Perry, Dewhurst, Straus instruct DPS to increase border presence

House Speaker Joe Straus
House Speaker Joe Straus (Photo by John Anderson)

Spurred by an online petition voicing concerns about a recent rise in undocumented immigrants, on June 18 Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Joe Straus instructed the Texas Depart­ment of Public Safety to increase its presence along the border with Mexico. The big questions now are, how does Texas pay for this surge, and will lawmakers need to reconvene for a special session to cover the bill?

After inward migration dropped during the recession, the last few months have seen a major increase in the number of illegal border crossings – many of them minors, sent over by their parents without any accompaniment. The already overstretched federal agencies have been picking up more and more people, but there are undoubtedly more that are not being detected or detained. In a recent letter explaining the deployment, Straus wrote, "This rush of young migrants has overwhelmed federal officials and could make the border region more vulnerable to criminal activity such as drug trafficking and human smuggling operations."

With the border surge costing an estimated $1.3 million a week, funding may well end up being the key issue. Last session, the Lege approved a 55% increase in DPS funding for border-related activities, but Straus was quick to note that this latest increase "is not simply writing a blank check to DPS." In the short term, the agency will have to cover the costs out of its existing budget. As joint chairs of the Legislative Budget Board, Dewhurst and Straus have a degree of latitude in redirecting cash flow within the department's budget. Equally, either they or Perry can conceivably take money from another state agency and reallocate it to DPS (not that anyone should expect other offices to be lining up to hand their cash over).

Beyond that, the state only has two real options. One, let the agency overspend, then pass an emergency appropriations measure in the 2015 session to cover the bill; or two, use cash from the Rainy Day Fund, which would require a special session of the Legis­lature. That said, with a total of 12 special sessions since Perry became governor in 2000, they're getting less special by the year, and there are increasing calls from both left and right to bring the Lege back, not just to work out the finances, but to create a more holistic approach to dealing with what Straus has already called a humanitarian crisis. The idea was initially floated by Tea Party conservatives like Reps. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, and James White, R-Woodville, but has gained the support of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Sen. Wendy Davis, who has called on Perry to declare a state of emergency along the border, then call a special so that lawmakers can hear from local officials about what they really need.

But even with secure funding, there are very real questions about how much DPS officers can do along the border, since they don't have the statutory authority to enforce immigration law. Moreover, others will question how deploying officers and troopers to the border will affect law enforcement in the rest of the state.

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