3 years later, still no groundbreaking on donation-funded state border fence

Hank Stephenson//November 11, 2013

3 years later, still no groundbreaking on donation-funded state border fence

Hank Stephenson//November 11, 2013

(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
(AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Nearly three years after lawmakers started soliciting public donations to build a portion of fence along Arizona’s border with Mexico, lawmakers still don’t have a plan to build a fence with the $264,028 they have received.

Members of the Joint Border Security Advisory Committee met for the second time this year on Nov. 6 to discuss uses for the fund, but lacked a quorum and ended the meeting without making any decisions.

Republican Rep. Steve Smith of Maricopa, sponsor of the legislation that created the fund, gave reporters no answers about what he and the committee plan to do with the money, saying only that he wants to secure a portion of the border to prove it can be done, even if it is only in a small area.

Smith said he was still searching for answers on the best way to spend the money.

“It depends on where the (starting) area is,” he said. “If the area needs a fence, we’ll build a fence, if the area has a fence and needs something else, we can do something else.”

Smith blamed the committee for not spending the money on a fence yet, though he said he still didn’t know what exactly he would spend it on or where the fence would be located if it were solely his decision.

“Unfortunately, it’s not the Steve Smith project, which I wish it were. Because if it were, it would have been (done) two years ago, and you would have seen what can be done with a little bit of money. But I’m at the mercy of everyone in this room, and other people who aren’t in this room,” Smith said.

Publicly, Smith was still clinging to the idea that the money could buy a border fence, which usually costs more than $2 million per mile, saying that others want to help and donate, though they haven’t done that yet.

But Republican Rep. David Stevens of Sierra Vista, co-chair of the committee, told The Associated Press on Nov. 5 that Smith realized the money wouldn’t be enough to build a fence and has given up on the idea, opting instead to give the money to border sheriffs to help with their operations.

“(Smith) wants to put it to use on the border, because it’s not enough to build a fence,” Stevens told the AP.

Stevens said the committee wanted to go into executive session to hear advice from its lawyers about how it could legally spend the money on projects other than a border fence, but he hadn’t put it on the agenda beforehand and had to wait until the next meeting in December.

He acknowledged the committee couldn’t realistically build a border fence, but declined to go into further details about other options the committee was considering.

A plain reading of the statute makes it unlikely that the committee has any flexibility to spend the money on anything but a fence, and throws cold water on proposals to use the money for border monitoring equipment — often referred to as a “virtual fence” — or to give it directly to border sheriffs.

The Legislature created the fund to allow the state to collect private funds (or use taxpayer money) for “the construction and maintenance of a secure fence along the Arizona-Mexico border line.”

There are multiple references to “border fence” throughout the statute, which explicitly says that “all monies in the (border security) trust fund shall be used exclusively to carry out the purposes of this section.”