TEXAS, USA — Texas lawmakers have shifted nearly $1 billion away from state agencies to fund Gov. Greg Abbott's controversial border mission, Operation Lone Star.
In other years, the move would've blown holes in department budgets and threatened services Texans rely on.
But federal relief money, earmarked for coronavirus recovery, ensured agency operations continued. Using a common budget tactic, lawmakers used the aid to shore up its own coffers.
Democrats have criticized the move, suggesting Abbott misappropriated the money to keep his border mission running.
"Texas has struggled immensely during the pandemic, and these funds are critical to help our state recover from the devastation of the past two years," U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
"Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families," he continued.
Castro and seven other Democrats called for a federal investigation into Operation Lone Star's budget.
The governor's office says it adhered to federal guidance when it allocated funds.
"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," said Renae Eze, Abbott's press secretary.
Federal money comes with spending restrictions, which is why lawmakers could not directly fund Operation Lone Star with CARES Act or ARPA dollars.
In March, Abbott's staffers told lawmakers they instead used federal aid to cover some ordinary operating expenses, like certain payroll obligations. The move freed state dollars up for unrestricted spending, including on Operation Lone Star.
"For the agency, it was a dollar-for-dollar. There's no difference to the agency or employee. It's just a swap," Sarah Hicks, Abbott's budget director, said in a March hearing.
Other states have employed the same method to free money for spending on pet projects.
Abbott has repeatedly told agency heads the fund swaps would not affect their operations.
"It's all completely legal," Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. "Even if it might be seen as not the best use of COVID-19 relief funds."
"This is all about trying to score political points," Jones continued, making reference to Castro's letter to Yellen. "Now, they'll be able to say - at least through the election season - that Abbott and his administration are being investigated by the federal government for abusing use of COVID funds."
Still, Democrats maintain the money should've boosted health care services or helped Texas rebuild from the pandemic.
"It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor Abbot to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic," Castro wrote.