Hiring hundreds of new troopers for the Texas-Mexico border is part of sweeping border security measures tentatively passed Wednesday by the House, but closing a $300 million gulf with Senate proposals remains as the Legislature lurches toward the halfway mark.
Republican Gov. Greg Abbott put heightened border security -- even above the muscular show of force Texas deployed under Rick Perry -- at the top of his to-do list for his first 100 days in office. Conservatives are quickly delivering on Abbott's vision -- and their own campaign promises to GOP voters back home.
Vastly outnumbered Democrats, who for years have hotly opposed calls to "militarize" the Texas border, mostly sat out this fight and let the bill pass without fireworks.
But settling on a price tag for new spy planes, boats mounted with machine guns on the Rio Grande and intelligence gathering could make for rocky negotiations between GOP budget writers in the last half of the 140-day session. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the Senate have set aside $815 million -- more than double what Texas currently spends on border security.
The House has put roughly a half-billion dollars on the table, which still would amount to a record spending spree.
"We've been doing starts and stops and starts and stop along the border," said Republican state. Rep. Dennis Bonnen, who is carrying the bill. "This is about creating a consistency that people can count on."
Only now have the House and Senate begun making major votes in the first session under Abbott, and the first bills up are symbolic reminders of dominating Republican victories last November. As the House spent hours fine-tuning border security plans Wednesday, the Senate was giving the OK to concealed handguns on college campuses.
Beyond hiring new troopers and putting some retired back on duty, the bill offers a path for the Texas National Guard to leave the border. Perry ordered 1,000 guard members to the Rio Grande Valley last summer, and Abbott has said that mission can't end until Texas has state troopers and technology to replace them.
The bill overwhelmingly advanced 131-12. Democrats did not plot to derail the bill on procedural snags or hours of protests as they might have in previous sessions when amplifying border security was on the table, saving their energy for harsher anti-immigrant proposals that may yet come down the pike.
Concerns raised instead surrounded milder issues: safeguards on Department of Public Safety contracts for big-ticket purchases like helicopters, and keeping regular tabs on spending and crime statistics to make sure the measures are paying off.
Texas has spent nearly $1 billion on border security in the past eight years. The bill still needs to pass the Senate.
"The goal it seems is to prove how serious we are about border security by throwing money at it," Democratic state Rep. Armando Walle of Houston said.