Gov. Doug Ducey is proposing to put another $50 million into a border security fund state legislators created last year.
But much of the $55 million lawmakers originally dedicated to the fund remains unspent and a closer look shows the Legislature steered more money to Republican leaning counties than Democratic ones while also earmarking funding for a program promoted by a well-connected lobbyist.
The fund is overseen by the Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, or DEMA, which says about $11.3 million has been spent so far from the fund on National Guard operations at the border. $25 million was set aside from the fund for that purpose.
The department says that of the other $30 million, a total of $2.5 million has been distributed — all of it to Yuma County.
A spokesperson for the department said the pace of spending depends on jurisdictions applying for funds.
Wendy Smith-Reeve, who previously worked in the Ducey administration as deputy director of DEMA, questioned the role of politics in dividing up the fund.
About $8 million has been earmarked for Cochise, Yuma and Pinal counties — which all have Republican sheriffs.
Pima and Santa Cruz counties, which are on the border but have Democratic sheriffs, are only expressly mentioned as sharing $1.1 million with other counties for equipment such as cameras.
“The state is there to support all counties, all communities equally and not pick and choose who is going to receive support and who is not when they are all experiencing the exact same situation,” she said.
Smith-Reeve said it is not surprising more of the money has not been spent about six months after the fund was established but questioned why the governor is proposing to add another $50 million into the fund as he prepares to leave office after the 2022 election.
“The way I see it is, there’s a political aspect to this decision,” she said.
But CJ Karamargin, a spokesman for the governor, argued there is still a need for the funding.
“The challenges on our border have not subsided,” he said. “We’re facing an extraordinary amount of illegal drugs and human trafficking coming across our border.”
And Karamargin denied that money from the fund is being steered to counties based on partisan leanings.
“We are interested in working with any and all partners in all four border counties to increase security on our border,” he said.
Arizona Public Media obtained hundreds of pages of documents about the fund, however, and some messages raise questions about how the money is earmarked.
For example, while much of the money in the fund can be used to prevent and prosecute human trafficking, the Legislature set aside $2.7 million for a particular pilot program to prevent human trafficking.
Major General Kerry Muehlenbeck, the director of DEMA, sent an email to other state officials in July explaining that $2.7 million is for a company called Zero Trafficking.
But the state has not formally tapped any company or nonprofit to run the project.
A spokesperson for DEMA said the agency got the name of the company from the Legislature.
And the small, Florida-based technology company had hired a lobbyist — Brett Mecum, the former executive director of the state Republican Party.
Mecum has reported directly lobbying the chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. David Gowan, a Republican from Sierra Vista who sponsored the legislation to create the fund.
Gowan told AZPM he got a demonstration of Zero Trafficking’s technology but said the program would be open for any company to bid on.
Still, messages exchanged during a DEMA meeting about the fund suggest some questioned how the money is being divided.
One person, whose name was redacted, wrote: “Another program the Gov is throwing money at that no one may need/want.”
Another person, whose name was also redacted, replied: “Exactly. and how does this vendor know about it unless they were tipped off.”
One person wrote in another redacted message: “Right, this zero trafficking is hoping to get the $$$.”
Mecum and Zero Trafficking did not respond to AZPM’s phone calls for this story.