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Gov. Abbott’s Border Wall Proposal Is More Political Than Practical, Experts Say

Greg Abbott at lectern speaking.
Eric Gay
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference where he provided an update to Texas’ response to COVID-19, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Austin, Texas.

The state of Texas has allocated just over $1 billion for "border security" in its latest budget, and Gov. Greg Abbott said he plans to build a border wall in Texas as part of that strategy, while crowdfunding some of the costs.

But political scientists and the governor’s critics are skeptical of Abbott’s plan, saying it’s legally and financially improbable, and more likely spurred by his own bid for reelection and possible aspirations for a 2024 presidential run.

“If he’s going to try to win across the country, he needs to first win in his home state,” said Mark Jones, a political science fellow with Rice University’s Baker Institute. “The announcement is what’s important, not actually constructing the wall.”

When then-President Donald Trump first announced that he would construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, he told taxpayers it would cost no more than $12 billion. Instead, reporting from the Texas Tribune found a quickly skyrocketing price tag, with contracts for parts of the wall costing billions more than projected.

State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, said even if the entirety of the $1.1 billion in state funds was used on a proposed wall, the money wouldn't do much.

"The border wall, as far as the efforts under Trump have shown, is…going to cost something like $100 million a mile,” he said.

The Texas-Mexico border is more than 1,200 miles in length, according to the state transportation department's website.

During a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Abbott announced the state of Texas would solicit public donations to fund the project through the use of an online donation portal.

Abbott added the project would begin once a program manager was hired by the Texas Facilities Commission.

He also said the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would transfer $250 million to the governor’s office as a down payment for the project — a sum that is not part of the state’s $1.1 billion allocation for border security, as it’s coming from the TDCJ’s revenue, according to a letter provided by the governor’s office.

“Texas is stepping up and doing more than any other state ever has to respond to challenges along border,” Abbott said.

Abbott also signed a letter to President Biden, demanding to return of any land taken by the federal government during its previous attempt to build the border wall. Once that land has been returned, Abbott said those property owners will have the option to voluntarily use that land to help build the wall.

It wouldn't be the first instance of crowdfunding for a proposed wall. In 2018, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon raised $25 million from private donors to do just that.

The Justice Department later found Bannon and others funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to themselves from the fund.

Abbott said the sole purpose for the money would be to pay for the construction of the border wall, and added that the donations would be deposited into a fund overseen by his office.

The move comes ahead of a potentially tough GOP primary for the incumbent governor. Former Texas state Sen. Don Huffines has already declared his candidacy, and others — including Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and former state GOP Chair Allen West — have also teased a run.

Even if the passage of $1.1 billion in border funding out of a nearly $250 billion budget doesn't do much to jumpstart wall construction, it's still likely to be something Republicans can run on when facing reelection, according to Joshua Blank from the University of Texans at Austin's Texas Politics Project.

"It's not exactly clear what all of this money does or how effective it is at actually reducing border crossings," Blank said. "It's more symbolic than anything else."

Houston Public Media provided this story.