Fort Worth and other Texas cities with military bases are intensifying efforts to secure millions of dollars in state funding to shore up the installations as a pre-emptive strike against another round of closures or cutbacks.
With the session ending June 1, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and City Council members consider the issue a top priority.
Naval Air Station Fort Worth, which opened on the west side in 1994 after the closure of Carswell Air Force Base, is the third-largest employer in North Central Texas and contributes more than $9 billion to the state economy, according to the state comptroller’s office.
Although another round of closures hasn’t been scheduled, state and local officials fear that one is on the way — possibly by 2017 — after years of deep military cuts precipitated largely by the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan. The federal government, through Base Realignment and Closure, has shuttered more than 350 installations in five rounds from 1989 to 2005.
“Everybody’s had it on their radar for two or three years,” Price said.
She expressed hope that the Fort Worth base would be spared if there is another round. But, she said, “we just don’t want to gamble on anything like that.”
Price and other mayors of cities with military installations are waging a unified effort to persuade legislative budget writers to allocate $150 million to the governor’s Texas Military Preparedness Commission, which would award grants to communities to help enhance bases.
The 13-member commission is chaired by Paul Paine of Fort Worth, a former Navy captain who is the president of Fort Worth South, a nonprofit engaged in the redevelopment of the near south side.
Separate legislation would increase the maximum size of the grants from $2 million to $5 million a year, or from $4 million to $10 million each legislative biennium.
Senate Bill 318, sponsored by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, passed the Senate on March 17 by a 27-3 vote.
Rep. Susan King, R-Abilene, who chairs the House Defense and Veterans Affairs Committee, wrote the House version — House Bill 2728.
Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, vice chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Military Installations Committee, supported Hinojosa’s bill when the panel voted unanimously to send it to the Senate floor. But she reversed her position in the full Senate by voting against it, joining Sens. Van Taylor, R-Plano, and Don Huffines, R-Dallas.
“I voted against SB 318 because it expands an economic development assistance program from a maximum of $2 million per grant to $5 million per grant, without a clear case for the reason to do so,” Burton said in a statement to the Star-Telegram on Saturday. “I voted to let it out of committee to continue the discussion but as I talked to my colleagues on the floor, there was not a compelling reason to make the adjustment at this time.”
The proposal to expand the pool of grant money — which largely went unfunded the past two legislative sessions — comes as Texas bases and defense plants are still feeling the repercussions of more than three years of automatic cuts known as sequestration. Several major Army installations are facing layoffs of thousands of military and civilian workers.
Price and other municipal leaders banded together as Texas Mayors of Military Communities, which has waged a high-profile effort to fund the military preparedness commission at $150 million.
The commission also includes Fort Worth Councilmen Jungus Jordan, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, and Dennis Shingleton, a retired Army colonel whose council district includes Naval Air Station Fort Worth.
‘Small price to pay’
In their request to the Legislature, the city leaders said the $150 million request represents only one-tenth of 1 percent of the nearly $150 billion that the 15 Texas military installations bring to the state’s economy — “a very small price to pay to protect the military mission and jobs at Texas military installations.” Bases and other military facilities employ more than 255,000 uniformed and civilian personnel.
“If state investment is going to make a difference in a future BRAC outcome, funding for projects is needed during the FY 2016-2017 biennium,” the request says.
The mayors also warned that Texas is behind other states in gearing up for another BRAC round, noting that Massachusetts, Florida and Connecticut have already poured millions of dollars into military enhancements.
The total outlay for the grant-disbursing commission will be decided by a House-Senate conference committee that will spend the final weeks of the session hammering out a budget to run the state for the next two years.
Supporters of the proposal are paying close attention to Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, whose two-county Senate district includes Naval Air Station Fort Worth. Nelson will serve as Senate chairwoman of the budget-writing conference committee and is also a co-author of Hinojosa’s bill to increase the cap on individual grants.
“Texas supports our military and our veterans. Our bases are an important part of our state’s economy and our communities, including the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth which I represent,” Nelson said in a statement. “Sen. Hinojosa and I are working on this issue through legislation, and I am certain we will be discussing this further during conference.”
The governor’s office has proposed funding the commission at $30 million, but Gov. Greg Abbott, who has advocated a robust military presence in Texas, has signaled that he might sign off on more. Amelia Chassé, the governor’s press secretary, said Abbott is “deeply committed to supporting our military” and “will consider any proposal passed through the Legislature that supports Texas’ military and military communities.”
The House has placed a $75 million expenditure for the grants on a budget “wish list” if funds are available. The Senate is advocating $30 million.
The last session of the Legislature mandated that a task force assess the value of military installations to the state. The Texas Military Value Task Force has called for allocating up to $150 million for grants and raising the grant cap to “at least” $5 million.
Advocates say the grants serve a dual purpose of enhancing the bases while making them even more essential to national security and thus more immune from closure. Fort Worth officials say they envision using the grant to improve a secondary base entrance-exit on Meandering Road.
Shingleton has also suggested using the money to improve infrastructure so the base could absorb reservists and National Guard personnel from installations that are downsized through defense cuts.
Other communities are eyeing upgrades such as replacing outdated training equipment, repairing infrastructure and undertaking new capital investment.
Other Texas cities with a deep economic stake in military bases include Abilene, Corpus Christi, Del Rio, El Paso, Houston, Killeen, Kingsville, San Angelo, San Antonio, Texarkana and Wichita Falls.
San Antonio, nicknamed “Military City USA,” has three installations: Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base and Randolph Air Force Base.
Corpus Christi is home to Naval Air Station Corpus Christi and Corpus Christi Army Depot, which describes itself as the world’s largest helicopter repair facility.
Although Congress hasn’t authorized another closure round, the military mayors group notes that the Pentagon is acquiring data to analyze “excess infrastructure” and assess the military value of installations.
“The collection and analysis of this data is normally the first step in the process,” the mayors said in their presentation to lawmakers.
Those who have personally witnessed the impact of base closings are eager to avoid another withering economic blow. Price recalls how parts of west Fort Worth “looked like a ghost town” after Carswell closed in 1991, the casualty of an early BRAC round.
The city rebounded in 1994 after Congress authorized the creation of Naval Air Station Fort Worth as a joint base composed of reserves, active-duty personnel and multiple service branches.