By JIM VERTUNO and PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — President Donald Trump is heading to Texas to press for a border wall to end the government shutdown. But talk of the “crisis” he describes is notably faint in the Texas Legislature, where Republicans have long cast the border with Mexico as a dangerous threat.
On Tuesday, state lawmakers returned to work for the first time since 2017, when Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed one of the nation’s toughest “sanctuary city” crackdowns and Texas spent nearly $1 billion on border security measures that included round-the-clock state trooper patrols in addition to a National Guard deployment.
But the first day of a new session arrived with Republicans, who control the Legislature and every statewide office, focusing on bread-and-butter home and budget issues such as paying for public schools and property taxes, instead of raising Trump-like alarms about the border and a wall.
It is a marked change in Texas from recent years, and comes as Trump hammers the border as an urgent national priority. GOP lawmakers say Texas has already done its part, while Democrats believe the shift reflects the Texas GOP changing course after its worst election in a generation. Republicans lost a dozen seats in the Texas House in November, propelled by former Congressman Beto O’Rourke’s close finish against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.
When Abbott welcomed back the Texas Senate with a five-minute speech Tuesday, the governor drilled down on his priorities of cutting taxes, overhauling public school funding and mental health. He made no mention of border security or immigration.
“It seems as though this session we are very focused on the needs of Texas. Focusing on the issues that I think resonate back home with our constituents,” Republican Sen. Lois Kolkhorst said. She said that given what Texas has spent on border security, “we’ve been able to do all that we can as a state.”
Republicans in Texas have hardly abandoned the president. The state’s lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Patrick, missed the ceremonial first day of session because he was called to the White House to discuss “issues critical to Texas,” according to Republican Sen. Jane Nelson. Patrick’s trip came as Trump is set to visit the Texas border on Thursday, and like Trump, Patrick has supported a hard line on immigration as leader of the state Senate.
Kolkhorst said she was pleased to see Trump taking a “very large stand” on the border. But, she said, Texas has done its part.
No state spends more money — or arguably attention — on issues surrounding immigration as Texas, which has the longest border with Mexico. Since 2015, the Legislature has spent nearly $2 billion on border security packages that were centerpieces of GOP agendas in past sessions. Democrats have criticized the threat as overblown, and some data the state has used to defend the mission has been questionable. An Associated Press analysis in 2016 found that child support evaders and drunken drivers were among thousands of arrests on the border the state classified as “high-threat criminals.”
“I don’t think you’re going to hear that aggressive narrative because of the election results,” Democrat state Rep. Rafael Anchia of Dallas said. “They knew they were being intellectually dishonest last time. But now it no longer is to their benefit. They were willing to do that because they understood the dynamics of a Republican primary.”
Trump and other administration officials have said the situation at the border has reached a crisis point, both on national security and humanitarian grounds. Two children have died in border custody, and an influx of families is straining health care and immigration services for asylum-seekers. While the number of illegal border crossings is down from 1.6 million in 2000 to less than 400,000 last year, the number of families coming over the border has risen sharply, with many crossing over into Texas.
Trump’s administration has been discussing the idea of declaring a national emergency to allow him to move forward with the wall without Congress approving the more than $5 billion he wants.
Texas-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said previous Texas efforts on border security were in part a result of state Republicans clashing with the Obama administration and feeling they were being ignored.
“It’s a different world now, with an administration that is taking border security seriously and responding to the state’s requests,” he said.
New Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, a Republican who four years ago authored a sweeping border security bill, made no mention of similar measures in his opening remarks Tuesday.
“Our federal government is steeped in gridlock and partisanship. For Washington, politics has become more important than people,” Bonnen said. “But unlike Washington, Texas stands apart. We lead the nation by doing things our way.”
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By JIM VERTUNO and PAUL J. WEBER, Associated Press