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House committee OKs handing Pinal County $5 million for border security

This Thursday, April 22, 2010 photo shows the international border in Nogales, Ariz.  The first of 532 National Guard troops are set to begin their mission in the southern Arizona desert on Monday, Aug. 30, 2010 under President Barack Obama's plan to beef up U.S.-Mexico border security, although they won't have any law enforcement authority. (AP Photo/Matt York)

U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, Ariz. (AP File photo)

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday passed a bill to increase the state’s border security, as representatives continue shaking their fists at Washington, D.C.

HB2718, sponsored by House Speaker pro tem Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, stipulates that the remaining $5 million in the state’s photo-enforcement fund, collected during the state’s experiment with cameras catching speeders on the highways from September 2008 to last July, will be given to Pinal County. The money will be used by Sheriff Paul Babeu to purchase equipment to fight some of the drug cartels coming through the county from Mexico.

The full House will take up the bill.

Pinal is in a unique situation, Babeu explained at the hearing, because it isn’t technically a border county and therefore not eligible for some of the federal funds allocated for border security. But since major roads run through the county north from the border, Babeu said the county struggles with crime from drug cartels and smugglers.

“Clearly, this is the front line,” he said. “Pinal County is the new front line.”

Babeu, who made the news last week for a terse exchange via letters with the mayors of San Luis, Nogales and Douglas after they asked him to tone down his rhetoric, went on to describe some of the struggles his department faces, particularly the “watchers” that will position themselves strategically to watch the roads and send information to criminals looking for safe passage. He quoted scary statistics, such as 17 percent of illegal immigrants apprehended by border patrol last year already had a criminal record in the United States.

“I’m saying, give us the opportunity in Pinal County, give me as the sheriff of Pinal County and my deputies the tools, the equipment, the supplies, the weapons needed to go out and bring the fight to these foreign-born criminals that think they own the place,” Babeu said.

He added that the funds would be used to purchase equipment such as Gurkhas, armored vehicles used by SWAT teams and the Army, and aircraft with ground-based radar systems. No money would be spent to hire additional personnel, he said, which would mean most of the costs would be one-time expenditures and would not require a long-term funding source.

He found support from the committee members, particularly the Republicans, who were quick to point out that the issues were a result of the federal government’s neglecting to secure the border.

Rep. John Filmore, R-Apache County, suggested the reason Pinal has not received federal funds is that Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security and former Arizona governor, has “decided to spend more money on groping and grabbing people at airports rather than stopping the influx of the border invasion.”

Rep. John Kavanagh, R- Fountain Hills, showed similar frustration.

“It’s really galling that the very same federal government that refuses to do its job, but every time they can, sues us for pre-empting us doing their job, once again causes us to have to step up and spend state dollars that should be spent elsewhere on protecting ourselves because of their inactions,” he said.

Some of the Democrats also jumped on the anti-fed bandwagon, agreeing that the bill was necessary because of the failures of the federal government.

“The federal level has failed time and time again to address this issue,” said Rep. Anna Tovar, D-Tolleson.

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