PHOENIX — A legislative panel may be ready to jettison plans to build a border fence, having gathered less than $265,000 in donations over three years.
Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, co-chair of the committee, said Wednesday that the original plan, approved by lawmakers in 2011, may be unworkable. It envisioned a new fence on private property, with the consent of landowners, that could cover about a third of the 370-mile international border.
Cost estimates for such a fence range from $1.5 million to $3 million per mile, meaning the $264,028.35 currently in the fence fund would build less than a quarter-mile barrier.
“We’re trying to find out what the options are,” Stevens said. In fact, there had been plans for a closed-door session of the panel to get legal advice on what the law permits until it was pointed out there was not the necessary public notice.
But Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, who pushed through the original legislation creating the panel and allowing it to seek donations, insisted building a barrier on private land adjacent to the border remains an option — even if it’s just a small stretch.
He said if a barrier prevents people from crossing illegally even over just one or two miles, that will prove the concept works. And that, Smith said, should generate more offers of cash, supplies and labor.
Questions to committee members about the state of the effort after more than two years drew a terse response.
“We told you, we’re working on a plan,” said Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, the other co-chair of the panel. Pushed for specifics, she said, “We’ll get back to you.”
The move pushing back any decision on what to do with the funds came after more than two hours of testimony, mostly from a border-area rancher who detailed having to sleep with a gun near his bed, and a former Border Patrol officer who said the Department of Homeland Security is lying about securing the international frontier.
The sheriffs of Cochise, Pinal and Yuma counties, who also serve on the committee, expressed their own frustration with what they see as a failure at the federal level.
The 2011 legislation allowed the state to start taking donations to build a fence. Proponents, led by Smith, said they were frustrated by the lack of true barriers, with many stretches of the international border guarded only with barbed wire.
Smith said at the time the state could raise sufficient dollars through donations. And Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, suggested the use of inmate labor.
“We’re looking at our options,” Stevens said.
Because the 2011 law limits what the committee can do and how the money can be spent, Stevens wants a closed-door session with a lawyer from the state Attorney General’s Office to see if there are other ways to spend the cash .
But Stevens was reluctant to declare on Wednesday that building a fence was now off the table, deferring to Smith, who still thinks a barrier of some sort remains an option.