Homeland security spending gets thumbs-up

Congressional lawmakers have agreed on a $32 billion discretionary budget for the Homeland Security Department, an amount that is $896 million more than President Bush's request.

DHS' fiscal 2005 spending plan, which the president is expected to approve, promises a wide range of spending on new and continuing information technology programs. Money will be available for Customs and Border Protection, transportation security, preparedness and disaster recovery, infrastructure protection, cybersecurity, and research and development in science and technology. The U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program received $340 million, as expected.

Initially, it appeared that lawmakers had pumped up the chief information officer's budget considerably — to $275 million. But CIO Steve Cooper said last week that that was not the case. He said appropriators had merely combined the CIO's account, which had been part of the line-item budget for the undersecretary for management, with the departmentwide IT investment account.

Information sharing will be among the department's highest priorities, Cooper said. Other priorities will be to consolidate five wide-area networks into one, establish a screening process to assess the risk of people and cargo arriving in the United States, and develop interoperability standards under the guidance of the Science and Technology Directorate.

Lawmakers will closely scrutinize how the department awards various grants. Officials at DHS' Office of State and Local Coordination and Preparedness, for example, plan to change how they allocate grant money by adopting a new formula based on localities' risk and threat levels. Advocates of the change have complained that grant money is not being spent in certain parts of the nation when it could be put to good use elsewhere.

In the legislation, lawmakers expressed their interest in creating a universal definition of preparedness so that the term means the same thing in New York as in California, for example. The DHS appropriations bill sets out several deadlines for creating that definition. The baseline standards for preparedness are expected to cover technology, training, equipment and other resources.

DHS officials must complete the standards by Jan. 31, 2005. The bill also requires that officials issue final guidelines by March 31, 2005, so that first responders can prepare to meet the standards.

The appropriations bill also earmarks $5 million for creating a Rural Domestic Preparedness Consortium that would organize regional approaches to first responder training in rural areas. The group also would give technical support to urban communities that lack funds, expertise and other resources. Lawmakers said they expect a report on the initiative by Jan. 15, 2005.

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