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Agency heads face Estes’ committee

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, February 16, 2013

Border issues, drug cartels, immigration and water.

Crime, terrorism, gangs and drug smuggling.

Endangered species, wildlife habitat and state parks.

Those are just some of the issues the heads of three state agencies touched on as they presented their budget proposals to the Senate Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security Committee Monday afternoon.

COMMITTEE RELATIONSHIPS - State Senator Craig Estes (center), flanked by Sen. Carlos Uresti and Committee Director Ren Newey, listens as Todd Staples, Texas Land Commissioner, discusses border security and water issues before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, which Estes chairs. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

COMMITTEE RELATIONSHIPS – State Senator Craig Estes (center), flanked by Sen. Carlos Uresti and Committee Director Ren Newey, listens as Todd Staples, Texas Land Commissioner, discusses border security and water issues before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Rural Affairs and Homeland Security, which Estes chairs. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

The committee is chaired by Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, whose district includes Wise County. Estes and Sen. Chuy Hinojosa asked a few questions, but during most of the presentations, the entire committee just listened.

Land Commissioner Todd Staples talked about border security – a subject that would be dealt with in even more detail a few minutes later by Stephen McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety.

“If we reform border security and document workers so there is a legal way for them to come here to work, we can focus on drug cartels and not spend all of our time documenting workers,” Staples said.

Hinojosa urged a policy that would “bring workers out of the shadows.”

“In Texas, maybe we can take the lead in trying to identify these folks,” he said. “Let’s get them a permit to drive. Let’s know who they are – and then focus on the very narrow group of people who come here to commit crimes.”

Staples agreed, saying Texas has a “good opportunity” to initiate reform.

“Our resources are limited, and our law enforcement needs all the support they can get to go after the criminals,” he said. “We have an opportunity to lead on this issue, get the politics out of it, move forward and do what’s best for our country.”

Estes thanked him for his leadership on immigration issues.

McCraw, director of the DPS, put a live display on the screens in the committee room from motion-sensor activated cameras along Texas’ border with Mexico. He detailed various measures state troopers and Texas Rangers are taking to deal with border crime.

“We eliminated 10 command and control centers for drug cartels last year,” he said. “We seized $6 million in cash and over $45 million in drugs.”

But, he added, seven of the nine known Mexican drug cartels are now operating in Texas – smuggling drugs and people in and taking cash back to Mexico.

In response to a question from Estes about the federal government’s fairly successful efforts to shut down Caribbean drug smuggling through Florida, McCraw noted that those efforts in the 1980s are what began the shift to across-the-border drug smuggling through Mexico.

“The U.S. government committed substantial resources to combatting that smuggling, much of which was coming from the drug cartels in Colombia,” he said. “But if there’s a demand, they will go elsewhere.”

He noted that smugglers made use of what were then minor drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico and turned them into the powerful cartels seen today.

“They have evolved into major, international crime organizations that are using terroristic tactics, military tactics,” he said. “They’re at war with the governments of Mexico and the United States.”

Estes also asked McCraw about efforts to elevate the pay scale of commissioned DPS officers.

McCraw said there are 400 positions unfilled on the DPS force statewide – a gap he hopes to address by offering more competitive pay.

“We can’t afford to accept anything but high-end talent,” he said. “But the pay needs to be commensurate with the responsibilities and duties of a state trooper. We ought to have officers from the bigger police agencies coming to us – but instead we’re training officers for them then losing them because they pay better.

“The DPS ought to be an elite force.”

Estes commended McCraw’s agency.

“Every man and woman under your command is a jewel of this state,” he said.

PARKS AND WILDLIFE LISTS CHALLENGES

Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, said his agency’s mission consists of two things.

“We help steward the state’s fish, wildlife and parks, and we promote outdoor recreation,” he said.

TP&WD has more than 500 commissioned game wardens who enforce hunting regulations and other laws in 91 parks throughout the state. About one-fifth of the state is under a voluntary wildlife management plan, he said – over 29 million acres.

“We need funds to keep state parks open and accessible,” he said. “Those parks literally and figuratively tell the life of our state, and many state parks are the lifeblood of the rural communities they connect to.”

He pointed out that conservation is paid for in large part by hunters and anglers, and he urged the Legislature to “free up dedicated funds” so that the agency can do its job.

He also requested additional funds to help expedite the recovery of Bastrop State Park, which was devastated by wildfire in 2011.

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