Texas’s Governor Greg Abbott is a magician—or at least a skilled practitioner of three-card monte. In spring 2021, he declared southern Texas “a disaster area” overrun by marauding migrants, thanks to what he labels President Joe Biden’s “open border policies.” To stem the flow, Abbott launched Operation Lone Star (OLS), marshaling the Texas National Guard and state troopers to beef up security at the border with Mexico. He also tapped the OLS budget for his recent headline-grabbing scheme to bus 12,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago since last spring.
But this was tricky business, since OLS was going to be colossally costly. To come up with the funds he needed, Abbott practiced some accounting so creative some might call it magic. Others might label it fraud.
First, during Texas’ regular 2021 legislative session, Abbott got the Republican-controlled legislature to approve $1.1 billion to pay for 700 border guards and their supplies. He soon, however, decided this amount was too small and summoned the lawmakers back for a special session at the end of August. This time he asked for another almost $1.9 billion to pay another 1,800 guards/troopers and build a border wall (called Operation Steel Curtain, under the OLS program). Happy to accommodate the honcho in chief, the legislators approved his request.
But Abbott had even bigger plans. On December 20, 2021, the governor tweeted, “We are building our own border wall. Unlike the Biden Admin, we arrest illegal immigrants coming across the border & send them to jail.” Although OLS now had 2,500 lawmen (whose price tag had swollen to about $3 billion), the governor wanted 7,500 more. And he would get them—eventually building a 10,000-strong posse.
To pay the bill, the cowboy king pulled $1 billion out of a federal hat. Since $1 billion isn’t small change—even in Texas—how did he manage it?
In 2020, the US Congress passed the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to respond to the pandemic and offer aid to people, health facilities, small businesses, and state and local governments. The next year, it passed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP). The Treasury Department told local governments that the funds were to help them care for their “most vulnerable” citizens. Of the $4.1 trillion in national Covid funds, Texas got $65 billion—$25 billion from the CARES Act, plus $40 billion from the ARP.
The goals were straightforward: reduce economic hardships by providing families with emergency rental assistance, covering delinquent mortgage payments, increasing child tax credits, and waiving federal income taxes on the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits for middle- and lower-income families. The funds were also meant to pay for protective equipment and Covid tests and help small businesses, hospitals, nursing homes, nonprofits, and frontline workers. Finally, they would help states build the infrastructure needed to deliver water, sewer, and broadband services (to, for example, allow students to study virtually).
But the cash came with terms and conditions. The Treasury said counties couldn’t add it to their pension programs, use it to pay for debt service or legal fees, or to build “rainy day funds or financial reserves.” And states couldn’t use it to offset tax cuts, build prisons and jails, or pay police and trooper salaries—unless they were “substantially dedicated to mitigating and responding to Covid-19.”
Although the Treasury repeatedly warned that the funds could only be used for pandemic-related costs, that still left lots of wiggle room. Worse, federal oversight was largely absent, and big corporations, law firms, and bogus businesses cashed in on the CARES Act dollars—although they were designed specifically to keep small businesses afloat and employees employed.
To skirt the rules, Abbott and his deputies launched some mind-boggling maneuvers that one congressional aide, who asked to remain anonymous, called a shell game: As of now, the governor has steered roughly $1 billion of the federal pandemic dollars to Operation Lone Star—although activities such as migrant removal or border wall construction were never on the Treasury’s approved list.
According to Eva DeLuna Castro, the budget analyst at Every Texan, formerly the Center for Public Policy Priorities, Abbott never put the plan in writing, but he bankrolled the border control by swapping some state agencies’ general revenues with Covid relief funds. In turn, he used the general revenues to pay for OLS. In January 2022, Abbott wrote to the heads of three Texas agencies—the Department of Criminal Justice, the Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and the Department of Public Safety—stating that the governor’s office approved the transfer of their revenues totaling $480 million ($427 million, $13 million, and $40 million, respectively) to the governor’s disaster fund. Quite naturally, the heads obliged. The agencies wouldn’t lose a cent at the same time that the OLS budget was greatly increased.
Given his success in extracting the $480 million, he wrote the department heads again in April, to approve still more. This time, he added three other agencies to the list and asked for (and got) nearly $500 million. Here’s what he wrote on April 29, 2022: “Dear Agency Heads: We received your letter dated April 28, 2022, requesting to transfer [your] General Revenue funds…to the Programs within the Office of the Governor…. These transfers are meant to support the deployment of the National Guard with $465.3 million and border operations in other state agencies with $30 million.”
That the letter is convoluted reflects the bizarre nature of his scheme. It never mentioned the swap with coronavirus relief funds. Instead, it simply says that “the agencies’ earlier appropriations have been fully funded with other sources” (italics added).
Since the governor can’t act alone, the letter was also signed by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance Senator Joan Huffman, and chair of the House Appropriations Committee Representative Greg Bonnen—all Republican legislators who gladly OK’d the governor’s gambit.
The agency heads again coughed up the cash: $54 million from the Department of Criminal Justice, $159 million from the Department of Public Safety, $210 million from the Health and Human Services Commission, $36 million from the Department of State Health Services, $4 million from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, and $31 million from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Interestingly, the same day the heads received the letters, Camille Cain, the director of the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, quit.
Cain wasn’t the only one concerned. The Texas Newsroom, a public radio station collaboration, reported in May that nine Texas Democratic representatives to the US Congress “asked the Biden administration to review the OLS funding.” The request came after Abbott announced that Texas would divert about $500 million from state agencies to the border mission.
Nevertheless, to critics who saw little connection between some of these agencies’ activities and Covid-19, Abbott insisted they all were eligible, because they had “made significant adjustments to their operations as part of the state’s overall response to the pandemic” (emphasis added). To justify his ploy, he told the legislature that “the state is utilizing approximately $3.5 billion of the corona virus relief funds to support these efforts, primarily for salary and benefit costs for public health and public safety-related employees at state agencies…that have been substantially dedicated to Covid-19 response efforts.” And he obtained the $3.5 billion even before OLS costs soared.
Should Operation Lone Star be funded by Covid relief dollars? Abbott says yes. He argues that the funds were needed by “state troopers at the Department of Public Safety and game wardens at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department who were drawn to the frontlines of numerous response efforts.”
At a Senate hearing on border security last April, Sarah Hicks, the governor’s policy and budget director, responded to a senator’s question about the amounts spent and how OLS border guards would be paid when the funds transferred in January ran out. She said another “swap” could be done with up to $600 million more in federal Covid funds, enough to pay for OLS through August 2022.
Later, at a July House budget hearing, Hicks reported that the amount of general revenue swapped with Covid dollars had now reached $5.9 billion. She repeated the governor’s line, explaining that these funds were used to pay state workers’ salaries. Of this total, nearly $1 billion was from the 2022 transfers of the agencies’ revenues. She also acknowledged that more OLS funding would be needed after August 2022, although the number of lawmen at the border had dropped to about 5,000.
DeLuna Castro noted that the normal way governors get their programs financed is to propose a budget to the legislature, which, in turn, decides what it will approve. “But with Operation Lone Star, he simply said the border was ‘a disaster’ and got the agencies to agree to swap their general revenues with CARES dollars.”
Could any of these agencies’ border-control activities be linked to Covid? “Maybe a small amount, but not nearly $6 billion,” said DeLuna Castro.
Texas legislators did approve the coronavirus relief funds for pandemic-related needs in Senate Bill 8—such as to expand hospital capacity and improve the Internet portal for Medicaid.
But it also approved funding for which Covid connections are unclear (like for border control). It granted $100 million to the Bob Bullock State History Museum, $235,000 to the Briscoe Garner Museum, $160 million to compensate victims of crime, $20 million to the Texas Historical Commission Fund for one historic site, $15 million to a customs inspection station on the South Orient Rail Line, and $3 million to the Texas State Aquarium Center for Wildlife Research. While none of these outlays have anything to do with Covid, the state’s leaders insist they’re eligible because they replace lost revenues—which the federal Treasury says is legit.
The ease with which Abbott’s scheme succeeded is stunning. But it was an easy sell, since issues such as immigration, abortion, and the gerrymandering of electoral districts are all high on Republicans’ agendas.
It’s unclear how the governor will continue to pay for OLS since the program’s funds ran out at the end of August. The costs are still high; DeLuna Castro said the guard payroll last March and April was $50 million a month.
Abbott insists that OLS “fills the dangerous gaps left by the Biden Administration’s refusal to secure the border” and has caught 287,000 illegal migrants since OLS began. Interestingly, he neglects to note that US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) apprehended 1.6 million migrants in 2021. Moreover, CBP notes that it also caught 1.6 million migrants in 2020 (a fourth of whom were “repeat crossers”)—which occurred during Trump’s last year in office.
Nobody knows when OLS will end. Abbott got away with his maneuvers because they were so convoluted, and another regular legislative session to approve more funding won’t start until January 2023. Could he call a special session now? That’s hardly likely, since the midterm elections are in November and it’s doubtful that any legislators would leave the campaign trail.