Texas Democrats in Congress have asked the U.S. Treasury to investigate whether Gov. Greg Abbott has misused up to $1 billion in pandemic relief funds to pay for the state’s controversial border security effort. 

“Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families,” they wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, noting that “the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic.”

A Treasury official said Tuesday the department has received and is reviewing the letter from Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Veronica Escobar of El Paso and seven others.

Abbott’s office has denied misuse of federal COVID-19 funds, a $15.8 billion windfall from Congress last year intended to help states cope with the pandemic.

With few strings attached, Abbott has been able to beef up border spending by tapping health and prison budgets, then backfilling with the federal relief funds.

“These COVID relief funds went to public health and public safety state employees’ salaries and benefits,” said Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze. “Rather than attacking Texas for responding to their border disaster that they have created and escalated in the last year, President Biden and Democrats in Congress need to stop playing politics and do their jobs to secure our border.”

She noted that when the Legislature is not in session, “there are mechanisms to re-allocate state dollars if necessary to respond to the disaster — and we have had to use $4 billion of state dollars for Operation Lone Star to do the federal government’s job.”

On April 29, the governor, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dade Phelan, Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Joan Huffman and House Appropriations Committee Chairman Greg Bonnen signed a letter shifting $495 million from six state agencies to pay for ongoing border operations.

All but $30 million will pay for 10,000 Texas National Guard and Texas State Guard members deployed to as part of Operation Lone Star, Abbott’s immigration dragnet at the border. Funding otherwise would have run out the next day. The rest goes to other state agencies involved with the border effort.

The letter glosses over the true source of the funds, saying only that the transfer from the Texas departments of Health and Human Services, Criminal Justice, and Juvenile Justice and other agencies is “fully funded with other sources.”

Texas is scrambling to come up with nearly a half-billion dollars to pay the growing tab for its decision to post National Guard soldiers at the southern border. The cost of Gov. Greg Abbott's border security effort is now on track to exceed $5 billion for the current two-year cycle, up from $800 million last cycle. It includes deploying thousands of state police and Guard soldiers, and building a Texas-Mexico border barrier.

The governor has used the maneuver before. In June, he shifted $250 million from the prison budget to continue building the Trump border wall.

The running tally is now roughly $1 billion.

So far the Biden administration hasn’t objected, though Democrats squealed at the use of COVID-19 funds for a wall that President Joe Biden had halted.

In March 2021, Biden signed the massive American Rescue Plan, a COVID-19 relief package that, among many other things, set aside $350 billion in emergency funds for states and local governments.

The only strings attached: prohibitions on using the money to offset tax cuts or make a pension fund deposit.

“We are now concerned that this relief funding will be misappropriated to support the failed Operation Lone Star program,” says the letter from Castro and Escobar, dated Monday and co-signed by Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, and four colleagues from Houston: Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green, Sylvia Garcia and Lizzie Fletcher.

“As you have stated in your agency’s Final Rule for the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds,” they wrote Yellen, “the funding should be used to replace lost public sector revenue due to the pandemic, respond to the far-reaching public health and negative economic impacts of the pandemic, provide premium pay for essential workers, and invest in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure. Instead, Governor Abbott is taking this funding away from integral public sector resources and allocating it to Operation Lone Star, which the Texas Legislature has already funded with almost $2 billion toward border security over the next two years.”

In early April, Sarah Hicks, director of policy and budget in Abbott’s office, explained the mechanism to the state Senate Committee on Border Security: The state could cover an expected shortfall of up to $600 million at the border by tapping salary budgets at state health, law enforcement and prison agencies, with the agencies made whole using federal relief funds.

Of the $15.8 billion, $2 billion has gone to the Department of State Health Services, $378 million went to the Health and Human Services Commission, and $360 million went to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

On Friday, Abbott touted 242,000 apprehensions of migrants, more than 12,000 felony charges and seizures of weapons, money and illegal drugs.

“If President Biden and Democrats spent half as much energy fighting to secure our nation’s borders as they do fighting leaders like Governor Abbott who are trying to stem the historic flow of illegal immigrants, human trafficking, cartel profiteering, and enough fentanyl to kill every American, we might be able to end the humanitarian crisis of their own making,” said Eze, Abbott’s aide.

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