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Using emergency powers that let them make budget transfers when lawmakers aren’t in session, Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP leaders on Friday took $4 million from prisons and gave it to county election audits conducted by the Texas secretary of state’s office to “ensure election integrity.”

AUSTIN — Saying state lawmakers didn’t budget enough money, Gov. Greg Abbott and GOP legislative leaders on Friday cited an honest-elections “emergency” as they shifted $4 million from the state prison system to the secretary of state’s office to pay for county election audits required by the new Texas elections law.

The secretary of state’s office, under Abbott’s effective control, would create an Election Audit Division to conduct the randomized county audits the new law calls for after the next midterm and presidential elections — and thereafter, every two years.

That’s an important step “to stop voter fraud,” Abbott said in his money request to top Republican lawmakers.

Implicit but unstated in Abbott’s Thursday letter, and the leaders’ hasty proposal Friday for the fund transfer, which the governor approved, is that the $4 million for hiring, training and deploying election auditors presumably would beef up the rigor — and credibility — of a backward-looking audit the secretary of state’s office already is formulating. It’ll study results of the November 2020 election in four counties.

Officials in Republican leadership offices at the Capitol said Abbott’s move is aimed primarily at an “audience of one” — former President Donald Trump, who has belittled the four-county audit as “weak.” Even though Trump carried Texas by nearly 6 percentage points, he demanded that Abbott push through a law requiring a statewide look-back at the 2020 general election.

Abbott did not add election audits as a topic for any of three overtime sessions of the Legislature he called this year.

On Friday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Greg Bonnen got in front of the leaders’ fund-shift announcement with a tweet that called it “critical funding” for the secretary of state’s office “so they can conduct the important work of making certain every vote counts.”

Bonnen, R-Friendswood, was silent on whether the money bolsters the special 2020 audit under way.

Late Friday afternoon, Abbott issued a statement acknowledging the $4 million transfer and referring to the current, look-back audit as “the largest forensic audit in the country.”

He tweeted that the review of four counties’ 2020 results “will be the most comprehensive forensic audit in the country. Ensuring the integrity of our elections is critical to our democracy.”

On Sept. 23, the then-leaderless secretary of state’s office announced the audit was under way in four populous counties — Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin counties. The announcement came just hours after Trump issued a statement pressing for a statewide review of the 2020 vote.

That same day, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Chris Turner ladled out the scorn, attributing the move by the secretary of state’s office to a governor worried about winning a third term next year.

“Pitiful yet predictable that (Abbott) has capitulated to Trump yet again,” Turner tweeted.

On Thursday, writing Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, Abbott said Senate Bill 1 will help build “trust and confidence” in electoral processes and outcomes.

Lawmakers passed the “election integrity” measure in the second special session. Abbott signed it on Sept. 7.

Democrats and voting rights advocates have said SB 1 will reduce participation by minorities and encourage mayhem by partisan poll watchers at voting places.

The controversial new law, which takes effect Dec. 2, requires the secretary of state’s office to audit four random Texas counties after each midterm and presidential election and review not only that contest, but all elections from the previous two years in what could be a massive and costly undertaking. At least two of the audited counties must have 300,000 residents or more, meaning the state’s 18 largest counties will be checked far more regularly than the rest.

The secretary of state’s office’s Sept. 23 announcement picked the same number of counties for the retrospective audit as the bill calls for prospectively — four. But they’re all highly populous counties.

Even though lawmakers met in a third special session that lasted through Oct. 19, Abbott’s money-request letter makes a sudden declaration that “the SOS needs resources to establish an Election Audit Division. However, the SOS does not currently have the budget authority to adequately accomplish the goals sought by the Legislature.”

In their letter of response, Patrick, Phelan, Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Bonnen, the House’s chief budget writer, said the secretary of state’s office wasn’t given enough money in the current two-year budget cycle “to ensure election integrity.”

The leaders continued, “This insufficiency of funds creates an emergency.”

While Trump has said “Texans know voting fraud occurred in some of their counties” in 2020, the Texas secretary of state’s office has called the election here “smooth and secure.”

Nationally, experts have said vote fraud is rare and has posed a threat of altering outcomes only in relatively small, local contests. Voting rights advocates and Democrats have said that by perpetuating a “big lie” that last year’s presidential election was tainted, Trump and Republicans who bow to his will have weakened Americans’ trust in one of their signature democratic institutions — free and fair elections, and peaceful transfers of power.

The fund shift comes as Abbott is under fire from Republican challengers in the March 1 primary, including former Dallas state Sen. Don Huffines and former state GOP chairman Allen West. Like Trump, Huffines and West have bandied about accusations of election improprieties — without offering evidence.

The fund shift also comes just more than eight weeks after Abbott resisted Trump’s entreaties for the governor to ask the Legislature to pass an election-audit bill. Though Abbott balked, in the year’s final two special sessions, the Senate passed bills by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, that would have required an audit of the 2020 election and created a process in which party officials could trigger state audits of suspected future irregularities.

Patrick, who is Trump’s top political ally in Texas, is the Senate’s presiding officer. Though Patrick urged the House also to pass the bills, House members did not.

In Friday’s letter pulling money from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and giving it to the secretary of state’s office, now led by longtime Abbott aide John Scott, the leaders didn’t specify how many employees the newly created Election Audit Division will have.

The $4 million transfer of the requested funds was done under a process known as “budget execution authority.”

Under state law, the governor and the Legislative Budget Board, a 10-member group of key lawmakers that is co-chaired by the lieutenant governor and House speaker, can move around money already appropriated if they find there’s an emergency. Usually, they publish the proposal in the Texas Register and then hold a board meeting to ratify the decision.

Friday’s hurry-up transfer occurred without the customary formalities, and came after Abbott spent several days at a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Phoenix.

On Aug. 6, the leaders used a similar process — a letter, not a meeting — to restore an additional month of funding for the legislative branch. In June, Abbott had line-item vetoed $316 of the $410 million budgeted for the Legislature and its support agencies after House Democrats broke quorum in the regular session to halt passage of the election bill. “No pay for those who abandon their responsibilities,” Abbott tweeted in late May. In the year’s second special session, lawmakers restored the funding.

The money would come from the state prison system — as did $250 million last summer that was transferred to jump-start Abbott’s border barrier. In their overtime gatherings this fall, lawmakers restored the money. Prisons didn’t sustain cuts.

In distributing $13.3 billion of federal American Rescue Plan money in a bill they sent to Abbott on Oct. 19, lawmakers gave the Texas Department of Criminal Justice nearly $360 million in federal funds for employee pay and benefits, to use instead of state discretionary money. So the prison system is flush with general revenue, ripe for more transfers like the one to the secretary of state.

Beyond the flood of federal COVID-19 relief aid, in the two-year budget cycle that ends Aug. 31, 2023, Texas can expect to have nearly $25 billion of unspent state funds — a sum that dwarfs the $4 million being applied to election audits. However, to use any of that money, lawmakers would have to be in session.

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