Security Grants Still Streaming to Rural States
|By Dean E. Murphy, The New York Times
ANCHORAGE -- In the nationwide scramble for domestic security dollars, officials in Alaska are in a predicament that would be the envy of most other states. They must figure out how to spend $2 million in federal money.
The Department of Homeland Security rejected a proposal by Alaska to use the money to buy a jet, but indicated it would be "happy to entertain" further proposals for the $2 million. Officials are now obliging.
One of the nation's least populous states, Alaska is flush with domestic security grants, on a per-resident basis second only to Wyoming and about three times the amount allocated to New York over the past two years.
Money is so readily available that the Northwest Arctic Borough, a desolate area of 7,300 people that straddles the Arctic Circle, recently stocked up on $233,000 worth of emergency radio equipment, decontamination tents, headlamps, night vision goggles, bullhorns - even rubber boots.
Alaska's good fortune highlights what many critics say is a serious failing in the way that America is fighting the battle against terrorism at home. While there is consensus that the threat of an attack should supersede politics as usual, the billions of federal dollars for terrorism preparedness are being doled out to states in much the same way as money for schools, bridges and other routine federal projects.
Despite repeated efforts in Congress to address the situation - the latest recently announced by House Republicans - federal money continues to be distributed by a formula that places a higher value on spreading the wealth among states than on assessing where the risk of a terrorist attack is greatest.
"No member wants to go home and say my state didn't get any of the money but you are paying for it," said Slade Gorton, a former three-term senator from Washington who was a Republican member of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission's final report in July harshly criticized the spending pattern, admonishing Congress to "not use this money as a pork barrel."
The administration of Gov. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican, wanted to purchase a jet to help "defend, deter or defeat opposition forces" that might threaten the state. "Security and transportation" for the governor was another stated priority. But amid complaints by some Democratic state lawmakers that the jet amounted to "an expensive chariot" for the governor, the Department of Homeland Security rejected the plan in August.
Though Democrats and Republicans feuded in Alaska, the bigger battle among states for homeland security spending is not being fought along partisan lines. Gary Winuk, chief deputy director of California's Office of Homeland Security, said that population, not party, had determined how the sides lined up.
"It is purely big state-small state," Mr. Winuk said. "Just look at what the small states get."
Alaska, which has 649,000 residents, received nearly $92 per resident in security funds over the last two years, compared with states like New York, which received $32; California, which received $22; and Texas and Florida, $21 each, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The survey estimated $8.2 billion was allocated in 2003 and 2004 to state and local governments in so-called first responder domestic security assistance programs by the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.
One result is that in the Alaska capital, Juneau, an isolated town of 31,000 that virtually shuts down when the last cruise ship leaves in September, the emergency programs manager says he is awash in federal money. The town has bought or ordered a robot for deactivating bombs, decontamination equipment, night-vision goggles, pharmaceutical stockpiles and a back-up emergency radio system. So far in 2004, Juneau has received $962,000 in security grants, and opportunities for more keep arising.
"I don't have to go looking for grants, they are coming to me," said the manager, Michael R. Patterson. "The chief of police said very succinctly, 'I don't need more stuff anymore; I need more people.'"
Richard Ben-Veniste, who was a Democratic member of the 9/11 commission, said distribution of the funds nationwide had lapsed into a "general revenue sharing program" with "political muscle flexing," not terrorism considerations, as the driving force.
"We recognize that it is broken," said Mr. Ben-Veniste, adding that some requests for financing "strain credulity."
In an interview last week, Tom Ridge, the homeland security secretary, said that President Bush recently tried to shift money to higher-risk areas but that it was uncertain how Congress would respond. "We would like to see more of the dollars go toward areas where the population density is greater, where there is more critical infrastructure, and where the threat seems to be higher," Mr. Ridge said.
Political scholars say the problem is as old as Congress itself. Its origins can be traced to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, when big states and small states reached the "Great Compromise" on how to apportion Congressional representation.
The deal resulted in a lower house apportioned by population and an upper house that gave the states an equal voice. That system has allowed smaller states to demand a piece of almost everything over the past two centuries, and the latest pot of gold - domestic security dollars - is no exception.
A provision in the USA Patriot Act passed by Congress in 2001 guaranteed each state at least 0.75 percent of the total in terrorism preparedness grants for states and a minimum allocation for some territories as well, locking up nearly 40 percent of the money, according to a study by the House Select Committee on Homeland Security. The rest of the grants for states have been allocated based on a state's percentage of the national population.
"It is the price we pay for the kind of federal system we have," said Gerald A. McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks. "It creates an opportunity that a state like Alaska gets all that it does. It is nice for Alaska, but from a national perspective it is not justifiable."
Alaska has a particularly storied history of working the system, typically drawing more federal dollars per person than even the District of Columbia, Professor McBeath said. He attributes that success in recent decades to the political clout of Senator Ted Stevens, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Senate's senior Republican, having held the seat since 1968.
The other states with the highest per-resident spending of domestic security funds are also rural states with a single Congressional district: Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont. Together, these five states have a population of 3.2 million, about one-third that of Los Angeles County, one of many urban jurisdictions that would benefit from a formula based on risk because of its big ports and other potential targets.
The downside of the current arrangement is so apparent that even some beneficiaries have voiced objections. Lloyd B. Omdahl, a former lieutenant governor in North Dakota, said it made no sense that his state was among the domestic security winners - the state received $91 for each resident over the last two years - when the only plausible terrorist targets, he said, are two air bases that are already protected by the military.
Mr. Omdahl, a Democrat who is a professor emeritus at the University of North Dakota, said the fight against terrorism had not resonated with enough Americans to cause a public outcry for change. Short of that, he said, there is no incentive for elected representatives to rock the boat.
"No amount of logic will change opinions under those circumstances," Mr. Omdahl said.
Mr. Ben-Veniste said the 9/11 commission was advised that it would be difficult to change the status quo, both in terms of moving toward a risk-based financing formula and, in a related matter, limiting oversight of domestic security functions in Congress. Currently, more than 80 committees and subcommittees have some say in the matter, he said.
"Members of Congress privately told us that there was no way that they could achieve these reforms on their own, without some external force making the argument," Mr. Ben-Veniste said. "The notion of those with authority ceding authority is more or less equivalent to the notion of water running uphill."
Some scholars of Congress are doubtful that the formula will change. Frances E. Lee, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, said that the last time Congress suspended the traditional guarantees for small states on a major spending program was in 1956, when it authorized $31.5 billion over 13 years to construct the interstate highway system.
Professor Lee, an author of the book, "Sizing up the Senate: The Unequal Consequences of Equal Representation," said one difficulty was that larger states often gave up fighting over the money. Because the amounts involved mean much more to the smaller states, she said, they have a greater incentive to hold their ground. In Alaska, for example, the $54.9 million it received in first-responder grants in 2003 and 2004 is a small fraction of the $777.6 million awarded to California, the most populous state.
Yet solving the problem is not as simple as taking money away from Alaska and giving it to California, as some of the most populous states would like. Population, many argue, is an equally imperfect measure of need, because potential threats vary greatly from one urban area to another.
Former Senator Gorton said there were serious concerns that small states would be left vulnerable if money was funneled only to the most threatened. "If you harden some targets, you soften others," he said, suggesting that terrorists would go shopping for targets in states where there was less protection.
That is the argument made in sparsely populated areas of Alaska. Mr. Patterson, the emergency programs manager in Juneau, said it was overly simplistic to assume that rural states were undeserving.
Mr. Patterson said Juneau received about 880,000 tourists each year, mostly passengers on cruise ships. The Coast Guard, he said, requires that the town have an emergency plan to deal with an attack involving the ships, and that, he said, costs money.
"You have to understand that larger communities have historically been the economic power base and are used to bullying their way around and getting 95 percent of the pie all of the time," Mr. Patterson said. "It makes them mad when they only get 90 percent."
Even critics of the proposed jet purchase were quick to defend Alaska's disproportionate share of federal dollars, noting the vast federal holdings in the state and the economic significance of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.
William Tandeske, the state's commissioner of public safety, said the state truly needed the jet, but even its rejection should not be fodder for Alaska's critics. "If you thought the request was inappropriate, then the system worked," he said. "The extra level of scrutiny resulted in a denial of it."
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