Risk or population?

In the next two days, House and Senate lawmakers will discuss revamped legislation focusing on distributing federal homeland security funds based on risk and threats to areas rather than on a population-based formula.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the highest ranking Democrat on the committee, plans an April 12 preview for the Faster and Smarter Funding for First Responders Act of 2005.

The proposed legislation will promote state and local first responder coordination and prioritize homeland security grants by risk. It will be followed by a hearing held by the committee's Emergency Preparedness, Science, and Technology Subcommittee on the need for grant reform for first responders.

During the April 10 TV broadcast of CBS' "60 Minutes" news magazine, Cox said there's a good deal of waste because the federal government was in a rush to increase security immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"In some cases, the money just arrives," Cox told 60 Minutes. "It's as if you've won the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes and you say, 'I'm a big winner today where can I spend this money?' It's exactly backwards. Instead of planning first and knowing where that money's going to go according to our priorities, it's 'Now that I've got the money, what can I do with it?' "

Homeland Security Department officials say they've earmarked at least $13 billion to state and local governments to help provide training, exercises and equipment to emergency responders. One of the top concerns among state and local government officials is the need for interoperable communications equipment and the need to develop intelligence centers to collect, analyze and share information with federal officials.

On the Senate side, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) -- chairwoman and ranking Democratic member, respectively, of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- will likely this week offer a substitute to the Homeland Security Grant Enhancement Act of 2005 (S. 21), which was introduced earlier this year. The Senate passed the act last year as an amendment to the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, but it didn’t make it out of conference committee.

The substitute bill, committee aides said, would provide every state with a minimum of guaranteed funding, but on a sliding scale. In other words, no state gets less than a 0.55 percent minimum funding, but for more densely populated states -- committee aides estimate 19 or 20 states -- that minimum will be slightly higher based on a formula. Previously, the minimum guarantee in the bill was 0.75 percent.

The rest of the money would be allocated based on risks, threats and needs, largely at the discretion of DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff, congressional aides said. The substitute bill would double the threat-based funding from about $885 million in fiscal year 2005 to about $1.77 billion suggested for fiscal 2006.

"We want to provide the security guidance because he (Chertoff) doesn’t have any -- none," one committee aide said. "But we don't want to straitjacket him."

Committee staff members for both senators said they would also encourage more regions to apply, a factor that would help areas compete better for homeland security funding. The substitute bill would also require better accountability of the funds state and local jurisdictions use, mandating recipients to demonstrate how they spent the money, and require a Government Accountability Office audit each year. The bill would authorize the DHS secretary to take money back from jurisdictions if funds are determined to have been misspent.

Committee aides said the bill is much more of a compromise than several House lawmakers have been seeking.

In President Bush's proposed 2006 budget, state and local governments would receive about $3.6 billion for grants, training and technical assistance, which is similar to past spending levels. Although it allocates more threat-based funding for the Urban Area Security Initiative grant program, which targets 50 cities and regions at high risk for terrorist attacks, and creates a new initiative called the Targeted Infrastructure Protection program for reinforcing critical infrastructures, spending overall has declined. It is nearly $630 million less than what was budgeted for fiscal 2004 and about $420 million less than this year's funding.


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