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Panel approves bill to bar border wall

SANTA FE – A bill that would bar New Mexico state land from being used to facilitate the building of a controversial border wall sparked a wide-ranging debate Tuesday on wildlife corridors, stolen vehicles and illicit drug use before being approved by a party-line vote.

The next stop for the legislation, House Bill 292, will be the House floor after the 5-4 vote in the House State Government, Indian and Veterans’ Affairs Committee.

Democratic lawmakers on the panel voted in favor of the bill, which was prompted by President Donald Trump’s border wall plan.

“If we don’t stand up on something as big as this, then what are we here for?” asked Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo.

But Republican committee members questioned the state’s ability to halt a federal government initiative, calling the legislation misguided and unenforceable.

“The federal government is just going to go ahead and condemn the land,” said Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque.

In New Mexico, there are more than 22 miles of state-owned land and mineral rights within 600 feet of the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the State Land Office.

State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, has proposed a land swap to the Trump administration in which state trust lands and mineral rights within three miles of the border would be exchanged for federally owned land in southern New Mexico.

The State Land Office’s acting general counsel, Jack Sullivan, said during Tuesday’s hearing that approach is better than the proposed bill, since the state has limited ability to stop the federal process of eminent domain.

He also referenced a 1907 proclamation by then-President Theodore Roosevelt that created a 60-foot strip of land on the United States side of the U.S.-Mexico border – which some have described as a “public reservation” – as another legal consideration.

But Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said the legislation would make it more difficult for the federal government to seize the land needed to build the border wall.

He described the proposed border wall as a “very, very expensive distraction,” as some estimates have pegged its construction cost at as high as $15 billion.

Representatives from several environmental groups also spoke in favor of the measure, saying a border wall could block migration paths for jaguars, ocelots and other animals.

Meanwhile, Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, another co-sponsor of the bill, said construction of a new border wall would hurt New Mexico’s trade efforts with Mexico. The state’s exports to Mexico totaled nearly $1.6 billion last year.

“We need to work toward building a 21st-century economy,” McCamley said, calling border walls and moats a “12th-century” approach.