DHS bills offer plenty for locals
State and local emergency managers are the clear winners in the approps process
As spending bills for the Homeland Security Department move through Congress — the full Senate must still debate its fiscal 2008 appropriations bill for DHS — observers are cautious about predicting the final outcome. But already it is clear there will be big winners and, possibly, major losers.
One possible loser is a program for national driver’s license standards under the Real ID Act, which Congress passed in 2005. Its purpose is to strengthen anti-terrorist defenses by requiring states to issue driver’s licenses that conform to federal standards. State governors estimated the program could cost as much as $11 billion over five years, and DHS has set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2009, for states to begin implementing the program. So far, however, it’s unclear how much the federal government is willing to pay as its share.
The Senate Appropriations Committee included no funding for Real ID in the markup of its spending bill, and the House proposed only $50 million for the program in the bill it passed June 15.
That’s not much, but at least it’s a start, said Jennifer Kerber, senior director of homeland security programs at the Information Technology Association of America, whose members are high-tech companies. Many states look at Real ID as an unfunded mandate from the federal government, which could undermine the program, she added.
“If the federal government doesn’t come up with funding, then some states will not implement Real ID,” Kerber said. “We’ve already seen some cases where [state departments of motor vehicles] have asked for money to improve their processes, but the state legislatures have turned them down because they don’t see anything coming from the feds.”
Althought states’ DMVs are looking like losers, state and local emergency managers are the clear winners in the fiscal 2008 appropriations process that is under way. The House and Senate have proposed a $100 million increase in Emergency Management Performance Grants, for a total of $300 million. DHS will provide the grants to develop and improve state and local emergency management capabilities. Many emergency management offices need that money to continue operating.
The final spending bill that emerges from a House/Senate conference will likely include major increases in grants, said Yvette Tetreault, policy analyst at Federal Funds Information for States, a service of the National Governors Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures. “It’s a big surprise,” she added. “I don’t know why they are proposing the increases, other than it’s maybe the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
Others say the grant increases are not so surprising. The grants program has been significantly underfunded for years, said Michael Selves, president of the International Association of Emergency Managers and director of the emergency management and homeland security office in Johnson County, Kan.
“We’ve put a lot of effort in the past few years into educating key staffers and others in Congress and that, combined with the fact that [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] has also been pressing the issue, I think has led to people understanding better what emergency managers do,” Selves said. State emergency managers believe there’s still a shortfall of about $400 million needed to get emergency management offices nationwide operating at the level they should be, he added.
The contracting community, which generally likes to see increased grant funding, is concerned, however, that language in the House and Senate appropriations bills appear to tilt against relying on contractors to oversee DHS programs. The House bill states that DHS is relying too much on contractors and that it should move many of the jobs held by contractors at the Transportation Security Administration back into the government.
Industry officials warn that any move to rely less on contractors could backfire. “So much of the expertise today is with the contract community, and DHS is still not fully staffed,” Kerber said.
In addition to coming down hard on contractors in the appropriations bills, lawmakers have been hard on themselves — or at least appeared to be. House leaders delayed the debate so they could reach an agreement to consider the DHS appropriations bill as drafted, without earmarks. Earmarks refer to funding sought for projects in lawmakers’ home districts.
However, local districts may never feel the loss of earmarks. James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said there’s still a tendency — evident in both DHS appropriations bills — for lawmakers to look out for their local constituents by guaranteeing ample funding for state and local grants programs.
“It’s become an insatiable desire to treat [DHS appropriations] as a cash cow,” Carafano said. “People want the credit and to be more visible in the process than effective.”
Carafano said he worries that other parts of DHS that represent the core competency of the department, such as the Coast Guard, will end up being chronically underfunded.