Effort to protect military bases in Texas gets boost in state budget

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has a laugh at her own expense after reading a bill number incorrectly on Thursday, May 21.
State Sen. Jane Nelson, R- Flower Mound, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, has a laugh at her own expense after reading a bill number incorrectly on Thursday, May 21. AP

Intervention by Gov. Greg Abbott and frantic calls from leaders in military communities are being credited for helping the cities secure $30 million in state aid to help insulate Texas military installations from a future round of base-closings.

The $30 million approved by legislative budget writers late Thursday was far less than the $150 million sought by Fort Worth and other cities with military installations, but it nevertheless constituted a victory for the cities after lawmakers seemed poised to scrap funding altogether for the base-improvement grants.

Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, the chief budget writer in the House, said Abbott called him to ask negotiators to include funding for the bases. “He was asking for us to help put something in for the communities,” Otto told reporters.

“I am pleased the Texas House and Senate Conferees recognized the critical importance of state investment in our military bases,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. Fort Worth is home to Naval Air Station Fort Worth, the third largest employer in North Central Texas. The joint reserve base contributes more than $9 billion to the Texas economy, according to the State Comptroller’s Office.

The allocation will go to the governor’s Texas Military Preparedness Commission, which will use the money to award grants to communities to help enhance and improve local bases. The 13-member commission is chaired by Paul Paine of Fort Worth, a former Navy captain and president of Fort Worth South, a nonprofit engaged in the redevelopment of the city’s near south side.

Leaders of military communities unleashed a frantic overnight phone-calling campaign to the governor’s office, members of the joint budget-writing committee and other key lawmakers after reports spread Wednesday night that the budget conferees rejected the spending request.

“We made a lot of phone calls and visited with those we know,” said Fort Worth Council Member Jungus Jordan, a leader in the city’s efforts to secure the grants. Jordan said that Abbott, a strong supporter of the far-flung military presence in Texas, “let it be known that this was a priority for him.”

Abbott had sought $30 million for the commission, the same amount recommended by the Senate in its version of the budget. The House called for $75 million in a budget “wish-list” conditioned on the availability of funds.

After the telephone blitz, two members of the budget-writing committee —Otto and Sen. Juan ”Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen — said Thursday morning that they had not made a final decision, suggesting that funding was still on the table . There was also the possibility that lawmakers could consider additional base funding in a supplemental budget for the current biennium in addition to the $30 million approved for 2016-17.

The funding was approved by the 10-member House-Senate conference committee as the panel closed in on finishing an approximately $210 billion state budget for the 2016-17 fiscal biennium. The spending plan must be approved by the full House and Senate before lawmakers adjourn on June 1.

The panel is co-chaired by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, whose two-county North Texas district includes Naval Air Station Fort Worth.

A task force that was mandated by the last session of the Legislature to assess the value of military installations to the state of Texas called for allocating up to $150 million for the grant program. Legislation now awaiting Abbott’s signature would raise grants to individual cities from $2 million to $5 million, another recommendation made by the task force.

In its request to the Legislature, the Texas Mayors of Military Communities said the $150 million request represented only one-tenth of one 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.” Texas bases and other military facilities employ more than 255,000 uniformed and civilian personnel.

Advocates of the program say the grants serve a dual purpose of enhancing and improving the bases while making them even more essential to national security, and thus, more immune from federal base-closers. The federal government, in a process known as Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC), has shuttered more than 350 installations in five BRAC rounds from 1989 to 2005, and supporters of Texas bases worry that Congress could authorize another BRAC as early as 2017.