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Dallas Morning News: Irate that Abbott could tap COVID relief fund for border wall, Texas Dems seek ruling from Yellen

WASHINGTON — Texas Democrats in Congress are irate that Gov. Greg Abbott can divert federal funds intended for COVID-19 relief to build a border wall. On Monday, they asked Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to step in and block the state from using any of its $15.8 billion windfall for this “costly monstrosity.”

“We are concerned by the prospect of Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s potential misuse of these funds to continue the misguided plans of President Trump to extend a wall along the border between Texas and Mexico,” the 13 Texas lawmakers wrote.

Abbott announced a $250 million “down payment” on June 16 for Texas to build its own border wall, using funds from the state prison budget.

That’s one-tenth of the annual prison budget, but law and order allies seemed unconcerned. In March, Congress approved $1.9 trillion for pandemic relief, including $350 billion for state and local governments to use in almost any way they want, other than tax cuts or deposits to a pension fund.

Abbott’s office does not dispute that he intends to backfill the prison budget using the pandemic relief funds, though he hasn’t touted that aspect of his plan.

He and Trump will visit McAllen on Wednesday to put a spotlight on border security, the wall and complaints about Biden’s reversal of Trump-era policies.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin circulated the letter among fellow Texas Democrats in the House.

“Just as he unsuccessfully tried to steal federal education money from our schools, I would not be surprised if Abbott tries to divert other federal recovery funds from Texans” to project toughness on border security ahead of his reelection bid next year, Doggett said.

In the letter to Yellen, the Texans argue that the federal relief fund was meant to help states provide “premium pay to essential workers, assistance for small businesses, public health measures to respond to COVID-19, and investments in government services, including public facilities and infrastructure.”

Not a single Republican in the House or Senate supported the $1.9 trillion package, which makes it even more galling to Democrats that the largesse could subsidize more border wall.

Treasury is finalizing rules on exactly how states can spend the funds.

The Texans asked the department to make clear “that these Recovery Funds cannot be used for a border wall, fence, or similar installation. This rule should also be clear that this prohibition cannot be subverted by accounting tricks that use Recovery Funds to supplant state funds, which are then used to construct a wall.”

While the $250 million Abbott shifted from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice isn’t enough to build more than “a token, symbolic portion of this costly monstrosity,” the Democrats wrote, “it certainly should not be paid for directly or indirectly with federal Recovery Funds in defiance of President Biden’s direction to cease wall construction.”

Congress refused most of Trump’s demands for wall funding, even before Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 elections. He ended up diverting $3.6 billion from the Pentagon to continue the project.

Roughly 450 miles of barrier was built by the time he left office Jan. 20, mostly sturdier and taller replacement for existing fences.

The trickiest sections cost as much as $46 million per mile.

“Any new Abbott diversion would both ignore federal policy and deny Texans the infusion of federal resources needed to respond to the pandemic and rebuild a stronger, more equitable economy,” the Texas Democrats wrote. “Any such Abbott diversion would be particularly egregious since Texas actually has a state revenue surplus.

The Texas comptroller recently estimated that state revenue will grow $1.67 billion this fiscal year.

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