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Nebraska still footing $500K bill for helping Texas with border surge

Ricketts among 10 GOP governors heading to border with Abbott this week
Border Fence Politics
Posted at 1:12 PM, Oct 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-05 16:14:29-04

OMAHA, Neb. — Texans typically say what they mean. And Texas meant what it said in June when its emergency response officials asked other states for law enforcement help along the southern border.

The state's formal request through the National Emergency Management Assistance Compact said any states sending help agreed to “provide services at no charge to Texas.”

And several did, including Nebraska, Iowa, and Florida.

Experts in emergency management we reached out to said they had never seen anything like the Texas request, which asked for help but said Texas wouldn’t pay for it.

“I do not have a record of that happening previously,” said Njoki Mwarumba, an assistant professor of emergency management and disaster science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “There is a record of delayed payment because of various democratic or bureaucratic processes and delays or a lack of documentation or inadequate documentation. But a request that outright states that there will not be any reimbursement are highly unusual.”

KMTV investigators reviewed five years of emergency aid requests from Nebraska and other states.

The demand for help from Texas, which also mentioned a similar request from Arizona, was the only one that said upfront that the state wouldn’t repay the helpers.

Mwarumba and others who work in emergency management say the emergency aid compact between the states exists largely so that states can quickly send help and be repaid.

Nebraska’s offer to send members of the Nebraska State Patrol to Texas acknowledged the unusual request. It said Nebraska would not seek money from Texas.

So why does Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts keep telling taxpayers that Texas might still pay Nebraska for sending state troopers to Texas’ border with Mexico?

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, who sent law enforcement to Texas, dropped any pretense of being repaid after a similar public records request showed Iowa would not seek repayment.

She told the AP this summer that Iowans would end up covering the more than $300,000 cost of a minimum two-week deployment to the border. And she might send them again.

Ricketts, too, seems to know Nebraskans will pay the bill. He told 3 News Now Investigators last week that he hopes the Texas Legislature will yield but that Nebraskans will if they won’t.

“When we signed the contract, we wanted to make sure that there were no barriers for us to be able to quickly be able to assist Texas with regard to our state troopers,” Ricketts said. “So we in the contract said that we would not seek reimbursement. But we also know that there may be opportunities to get reimbursement from Texas down the road.”

We pressed the governor on why he thinks that’s possible, despite contract language Nebraska agreed to that says the state won’t seek reimbursement from Texas.

He paused briefly after the question and said, “The Abbott administration said they would certainly seek that for us if it became available, but there were no guarantees.”

KMTV called, left messages, and emailed the Texas Governor’s Office over several weeks to comment on the story. Thus far, we’ve gotten no response.

Texas certainly has the money to repay the states that helped. The Texas Legislature recently approved more than $2 billion in state funding for border security.

Nebraska’s border trip cost its state taxpayers around $500,000, Patrol officials said, because the state let some troopers stay longer than the two weeks initially offered.

From late June through mid-July, the Nebraska State Patrol sent 32 state troopers to the Del Rio area of Texas for up to 24 days. Ricketts and several who participated say the trip was worth it.

Lt. Michael Grummert, who helped lead the border mission for the State Patrol, says troopers gained experience and perspective that they’ll use back home.

The Nebraska troopers traveled with a trooper from the Texas Department of Public Safety daily, offering them something state troopers rarely get in the field – a partner.

They performed several jobs, from watching a particular stretch of road to monitoring a part of the Rio Grande River where people often cross from Mexico into the U.S., Grummert said.

They were there to help Texas enforce the law along the border, and he says they arrested people transporting large quantities of drugs, human traffickers, and more.

Together, they and the Texas troopers made more than 500 traffic stops, inspected 25 commercial vehicles, arrested at least 15 suspects allegedly smuggling other people.

And they referred more than 1,600 migrants to federal immigration authorities, the Patrol said.

They also saw the determination of families, Grummert said. He recalls seeing parents walking, soaked in mud while holding a plastic bag over a 3-year old’s head to keep him dry.

Many Nebraskans might not understand what many migrants put themselves through to get to the border, he said, including risking forced labor, assault, rape, the loss of a child, and death.

“I think a lot of those images will probably stick with me for the rest of my life,” he said. “What some parents will do for their children is just unbelievable, to give them a better life.”

Ricketts says Nebraska taxpayers would’ve paid the State Patrol troopers’ salaries and benefits over that span whether they served in south Texas or Tecumseh.

That’s true, but Nebraska wouldn’t have paid as many of the costs related to medium-term deployment in another state, from hotels and meals out to heat-ready uniforms.

And some Nebraskans felt the troopers’ absence. The State Patrol ticketed nearly 600 fewer drivers from June 28 to July 21 of this year than they did over the same part of 2020.

Ricketts says he made the right choice to send help. He points to the thousands of migrants huddled under the bridge near Del Rio, where Nebraska’s state troopers went.

“This is an extraordinary situation that we’ve got going on at the border right now in Texas,” he said. “So we took extraordinary steps.”

In May, federal immigration authorities recorded more than 180,000 people trying to cross the U.S. border from Mexico, the most since spring 2000.

The governor said he had to send help because he believes the Biden administration is ignoring or ineffectively responding to immigration and humanitarian crisis at the border.

Ricketts is one of 26 Republican governors calling for a meeting with the Democratic president on the issue. Their letter argues that President Joe Biden’s move away from the immigration approaches of former President Donald Trump is encouraging more people to the border.

He’s also one of 10 GOP governors headed to the border Wednesday with Abbott. He told "Fox and Friends" on Sunday he would support sending more state help to Texas.

“That’s what you’re seeing is the states have to step into the gap where the federal government is failing,” he said on Fox News.

Ricketts, a fiscal conservative, defended spending more state funds on the border mission than Nebraska does each year on its lieutenant governor or the Latino-American Commission.

A Texas-based political science professor explained why.

“The immediate reason is they know that their voters will support spending on this particular issue in most cases, and they’re not going to be vulnerable to it,” said James Henson. He runs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

Several Nebraska Republicans we spoke with off-camera said they were grateful Ricketts sent the State Patrol south to help. Three said they were OK with the cost.

But immigrant advocates Gladys Godinez of Lexington, Nebraska, and Yolanda Nuncio of Grand Island, say there may be a public safety cost to the Patrol’s border trip.

Godinez says fewer immigrants may report crimes that have affected them, which, in turn, risks making families and communities in Nebraska less safe.

“We hope, right, that our local police department and our State Patrols and our deputies, they are there to help us if we were to call 911,” she said. “But ... there’s fear, there’s real fear in calling 911 if I’m in an emergency because I believe that I’m going to get deported.”

Nuncio says that sending state troopers to the border contributes to people feeling fearful and questioning their standing in the state they call home.

Both said they’d prefer the state spend money sending humanitarian aid to the people at the southern border, including food, water, and clothing.

In recent weeks, there has been some confusion about which pot of state money would cover the costs of the State Patrol’s deployment, the governor’s emergency fund, or the Patrol.

In a statement Thursday from a spokesman, Ricketts confirmed that the money Nebraska spent to send the troopers to Texas would come from the State Patrol’s budget.

The statement said the Patrol would absorb the costs without seeking reimbursement from the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency or Texas.

The last part, about Texas, echoes what we were told by emergency management officials in Nebraska, that they had seen no effort by the state to seek repayment from Texas.

“I have not seen any discussion or any follow-up on that issue at this point,” said Bryan Tuma, the retiring assistant director of NEMA. “I only know that there were conversations that if compensation or reimbursement were possible, that Texas would pursue that.”

In recent years, Nebraska has sent help across state lines to guard buildings in Minnesota during the trial of disgraced former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

It sent help to North Dakota during protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In both cases, the state was reimbursed, although it sometimes took months.

Nebraska asked for help from other states during the 2019 floods and this year’s wildfires in western Nebraska. It reimburses states for their help.

So, if Nebraska taxpayers will shoulder the costs for the Texas border trip, which looks increasingly likely, was it worth it?

“Every dollar counts,” Mwarumba said. “I think the question becomes the impact it has on Nebraska. It’s about Nebraskans and their money.”

Aaron Sanderford at KMTV first reported this story.