PHOENIX — Arizona taxpayers may spend $30 million to do little more than find out how good — or bad — a job the federal government does in securing the border.
The measure approved Monday by the Senate Committee on Government and Environment proposes to purchase a network of 30 radar devices and infrared cameras to send real-time images to the Internet of what they see on and around the border. Potentially more significant, the images from all 30 cameras would be available to anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.
Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, said he expects Congress to approve some sort of immigration reform proposal, perhaps this year. And that bill is likely to include a commitment to have the Department of Homeland Security truly secure the border.
But Worsley said he’s not necessarily buying it, reminding lawmakers of Ronald Reagan’s “trust, but verify” quote.
“I think we have the right as a state to trust the federal government,” he said. “But we also have the right to verify the claims made ... in terms of how secure our border really is.”
The legislation drew questions from Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber.
He said it would be one thing if Arizona were spending taxpayer dollars to actually help secure the border. Crandell said SB 1106 becomes little more than an opportunity for Arizonans to sit at their computers and observe.
“I can tell you, the Department of Public Safety right now would love to have $30 million put in their budget to be able to hire some more officers, to be able to assist in drug enforcement,” he said. “I’m not sure it’s a good, wise use of money just to tell the federal government, ‘Ha, ha, we can see what you’re doing and we don’t agree with what you’re doing.’ ”
And Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, expressed concern about privacy, questioning what else the cameras can see.
But in the end, the panel voted 4-3 along party lines, with Republicans in the majority, to push the plan ahead.
Worsley is specifically touting devices manufactured by a Utah firm, SpotterRF, which markets its perimeter protection systems for military and civilian use.
“This is a radar unit that weighs less than 5 pounds,” he told colleagues. “And we currently have our soldiers carrying these in their backpacks on patrols in hostile territories.”
Each device can monitor more than 250 acres, with a specialty in spotting human foot traffic, he said.
“Add an infrared camera to this, a cell, a solar panel and a battery on a small trailer and you have a monitoring station that is very cost-effective,” Worsley said.
His original legislation proposed placing these up to 20 miles from the border. But Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, insisted that they be a lot closer, within a mile.
No one quibbled with the technology. What caused more concern was how much the state might spend — and exactly what taxpayers would get for that $30 million.
“This is not a budget to interdict or to stop any activity,” Worsley conceded. “This is monitoring independently the claims of our federal government relative to how secure our border is.”
And he said that $30 million really isn’t all that much, equating it to the cost of building a mile of freeway.
Crandell said he wasn’t so sure.
“It’s one thing to spend this kind of money ... to protect our citizens” from smugglers and other criminals, he said. “But it seems that most of what you’re putting here is just to observe to determine whether the federal government actually is telling the truth or not.”
Worsley quickly pointed out that the real-time images are available to everyone — including DPS and other police agencies.
“If DPS wants to interdict drug traffic where it’s happening, they can,” he said. “It’s not only for citizens to look at; it’s for everyone.”
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, suggested that if the technology is as promising as Worsley says, there’s a way of testing it that won’t tap tax dollars.
He pointed out that a legislative panel has raised something close to $300,000 in private donations to build a fixed border fence. But that plan has gone nowhere to date amid estimates that a physical barrier would run anywhere from $1.5 million to $3 million a mile.
Worsley should instead take his plea to that panel, Farley said, and ask it for the cash to set up three of these as a demonstration project.