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Border wall funding bill fails following heated debate

In the Wyoming Senate, worries about finite funds to handle in-state issues beat back a bombastic bill designed to shine a light on border insecurity issues several states away.

Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) responds to criticism about a bill he conceived that would send $5.25 million from Wyoming's rainy day fund to states that share a border with Mexico. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Mike Koshmrl, WyoFile

CHEYENNE—Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) doesn’t consider himself a racist, bigot or xenophobe. 

In the majority floor leader’s office just off the Wyoming Senate gallery last week, he said that part of the promise of the United States is what it offers to immigrants: “the freest country in the world, prosperity and a better life.” The senator’s district in south-central Wyoming has a “large ethnic component” that includes dozens of Peruvian sheepherders who are working under legal visas. “Quite frankly,” Hicks said, “we need more workers that are willing to come here, but they need to follow the process.”

Hicks’ self-description as a welcomer of outsiders came under attack Monday afternoon as colleagues peppered him with questions about a hot-button bill he brought, Senate File 166 – Border wall and sanctuary city transport. In essence, the bill would have allocated $5.25 million from Wyoming’s rainy day fund to help states bordering Mexico to build a wall and bus away immigrants. 

After sneaking through the Senate Appropriations committee by a 3-2 vote, SF 166 was up for first reading on the Senate floor Monday. That’s when Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) questioned how Wyoming wouldn’t be engaging in illegal human trafficking if it gave Texas $250,000 to transport immigrants to sanctuary cities in other states. And wouldn’t that kind of political theater just be “abject apathy” for other people in need, he asked. 

Sen. Chris Rothfuss (D-Laramie) questioned why Wyoming would spend $250,000 on busing immigrants who don’t know where they’re going “because it’s politically funny.” The 2023 bill that proposed the measure died. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

“Even if we’re concerned about our border,” Rothfuss said, “the idea that we would somehow lose our capacity for compassion for folks that are struggling, I don’t know where that comes from.” 

Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) didn’t use the word, but he suggested that it comes from racism. Why, he asked, did the legislation call out the countries of origins of migrants the U.S. Border Patrol encountered last fiscal year? The draft bill lists them off: Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

“I’m having a hard time understanding exactly what that means,” Gierau said. “It’s in here, so it means something and I just want to get a clear understanding of what’s being said.”   

Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) reads up on Senate File 166 – Border wall and sanctuary city transport before testifying in opposition. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

When Hicks spoke again on the floor, he was noticeably agitated

“When the federal government fails to do their fiduciary duty to protect our borders, it is incumbent on the states to step up and protect our United States of America’s border,” he said.

Ultimately, though, lawmakers’ interest in spending the state’s money within its own borders outweighed notions of shipping cash elsewhere, and the bill died. 

Floor debate

Hicks’ interest in border security stems partly from spending time down there firsthand, he explained in his office. An avid big game hunter, he’s chased after a whitetail subspecies, Coues deer, in the Sonoran desert on both the Mexican and Arizona sides of the border. 

“Sometimes it’s pretty damn scary down there,” Hicks said. “This is the major smuggling route: People, drugs, all this stuff coming in.” 

To rationalize sending money to other states sitting on their own budget surpluses, SF 166 cited the fentanyl crisis that’s killing increasing numbers of Wyoming residents. The draft bill runs off some numbers: the U.S. Border Patrol seized 14,699 pounds of fentanyl in 2022. Moreover, Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation data shows that law enforcement in the state seized around 38 pounds of fentanyl the year before. There was no evidence cited connecting the porous border to fentanyl entering Wyoming. 

Via an amendment, Hicks sought to make the connection. He proposed rerouting $400,000 of the $5 million to Wyoming DCI for the purpose of training local law enforcement officers to “identify and properly address criminal activity, including drug cartels and human trafficking, related to increased illegal immigration activity.” 

Gierau proposed his own amendment: change the $5.25 million allocation to $1.

“I urge you to adopt this and that’ll satisfy my many, many questions about this bill,” Gierau said. It was the last day for new Senate bills to be heard on the floor of the chamber of origin, making time a precious commodity. 

Hicks opposed the change. 

“$5 million. Why?” he asked. “[It’s] $1 for every illegal alien that’s been allowed to come into this country … that doesn’t include the 1 million or 1.5 million ‘gotaways’ that are smuggling drugs, that are human trafficking.” 

Gierau’s amendment failed, 11-18, seeming to indicate a positive outcome for the larger bill. 

A number of other senators, however, shared worries about fiscal responsibility and priorities.  

“Conservative states probably should band together the best they can,” Sen. Dan Dockstader (R-Afton) said, “but at this time we have some unresolved issues in our own state.” 

Sen. Bill Landen (R-Casper) suggested there is a “desperate” need for that kind of money to address Wyoming issues, like the safety of its children. 

Minutes later, SF 166 died on the Senate floor. It fell by a similar split, 12-18, with some of the Wyoming Senate’s farthest right members, like Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) and Sen. Troy McKeown (R-Gillette), joining the nays.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.