Five Texas congressmen representing districts along the southern boundary with Mexico are firing away at Gov. Rick Perry accusing his office of not sending enough in federal homeland security grants to the border. Responding to Perry’s own statements that Washington has failed to deploy sufficient resources for border security, they say the governor is responsible for deciding how grants are distributed.
“While we continue to fight in Congress to ensure Texas gets its fair share of federal funding, we hope the state would in turn allocate the funding where it is most needed,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Perry last month. The letter adds that just three percent of one readiness grant Texas is eligible for has made its way to border communities, which implies the total amount is mere pennies.
But a review of appropriations language and spending records obtained from the Texas Department of Public Safety shows the criticism directed at Perry overlooks millions in expenditures that have already benefited cities and counties within the five districts.
Local governments in southern Texas have purchased SUVs, patrol sedans, surveillance platforms, mobile radios, in-car video systems, night-vision goggles and bullet-proof vests with federal assistance. Zavala County in the southwest Texas district of Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, one of the five co-signers, even sought a $32,000 Chevrolet Camero, records show.
The federal Department of Homeland Security makes several anti-terrorism and preparedness grants available to local authorities, and Congress began setting aside huge sums of taxpayer money after the Sept. 11 attacks for such purposes. Policymakers also pursue congressionally directed spending items, i.e. earmarks, for homeland security initiatives that exclusively benefit their constituents.
The letter’s co-signers, in fact, tucked away a combined $5.5 million worth of earmarks in last year’s homeland security appropriations bill for their districts. Among them was $1 million to fund an emergency operations center in the state’s middle Rio Grande region, secured by Rodriguez, who sits on the House appropriations subcommittee for homeland security. Democrat Henry Cuellar, also a co-signer of the letter, chairs another House homeland security subcommittee and pulled down $500,000 for disaster mitigation work in his district.
Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) last year were critical of the $60 million in earmarks stuffed into the homeland security appropriations bill for emergency operations centers and tried to pass an amendment requiring communities to compete for the money. It was voted down.
As for grant programs, one known as Operation Stonegarden is specifically set aside for bolstering border security, and Texas state records show that counties within the five districts over the last two years alone have received somewhere in the neighborhood of $7.1 million.
Hidalgo County, for instance, in the district of Democrat Rubén Hinojosa, purchased four new Chevrolet Tahoes at a total cost of $167,000. That’s on top of five Ford Expeditions that each carried a price tag of almost $40,000. The county also last year picked up a $346,000 “ballistic engineered armored response” vehicle from the Massachusetts-based company Lenco, records show. Tens of thousands more went toward overtime and fringe benefits for local law enforcement officials.
The tense security situation on the border is no doubt a major focal point for the nation this year, and communities in the deep southwest face a different reality than those situated further inland. But the letter to Perry by the five congressmen only cites one program as evidence that border jurisdictions are being shortchanged, while state and local governments can and do apply for an array of grants offered by the Department of Homeland Security.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit investigative journalism organization Texas Tribune created a publicly available database of grant purchases made by cities and counties across the state using records we obtained on their behalf from the Department of Public Safety.
A look at that data shows the five districts have made millions of dollars in additional grant-related investments for everything from communications systems and laptops to surveillance devices and haz-mat boots. More Chevy Tahoes are on the list, too, as well as digital cameras, pairs of binoculars costing $370 each and GPS devices. Have a look at the spending yourself here. The key counties are Maverick, Kinney, Val Verde, Brewster, Presidio, El Paso, Webb, Zapata, Starr, Cameron, Hidalgo, Terrell, Hudspeth and Jeff Davis.
Border counties also profit from grant purchases made by regional councils of government that represent their interests. Within the five congressional districts those are the Rio Grande Council of Governments, the Permian Basin Regional Planning Commission, the Middle Rio Grande Development Council, the South Texas Development Council and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.