- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 31, 2005

Sens. Susan Collins and Joseph Lieberman’s commentary in these pages — entitled “Shoring up security at home” — makes the case for legislation approved by the Senate last week. According to the senators, their “legislation dramatically improves the homeland security state grant process by instituting a clear set of risk-based factors that do not exist now.” Yet a close look at the bill shows quite the opposite.

Today, grants to state and local governments are allocated based on a formula that guarantees each state 0.75 percent of the total amount appropriated to the Homeland Security Department for state terrorism preparedness grants. It amounts to 40 percent of the total pot of money being divided up equally among the states, regardless of size, risk or need. As a result, rural, less-populated areas often receive a disproportionate amount of money. Wyoming, for example, gets $37.74 per capita while California and New York get less than $5.50.

Accordingly, the reform of the grant program is a worthy priority if done properly. The Senate’s reform plan is to slightly reduce the minimum guaranteed to the states from 0.75 to 0.55 percent of the money allocated. Second, the bill makes the 19 most populated states eligible for more funding based on a sliding scale ranging from 0.55 to 3 percent.

Sens. Collins and Lieberman note that “this grants formula doubles the funding to high risk states while ensuring all states receive a guaranteed minimum funding so they attain a minimum level of preparedness.”Theunderlying theory behind this all-state-minimum formula is that terrorists could strike anywhere. That’s true. It is not true, however, that a successful terrorist attack in Wyoming would cause the same level of casualties as one in New York City. And, it is not true that the best way to protect each state is to give it billions of federal tax dollars to subsidize local fire stations. In fact, that strategy will make Americans less safe. By trying to protect everywhere, the Senate ensures that we protect nowhere adequately.

To make America safer, we should get rid of the requirement that every state get part of the homeland-security money. And to the extent that state minimums are included, the minimums should be kept low in order to provide maximum funding to areas of greatest risk.

More worrisome is that the Senate bill increases the amount of funding to which this formula applies, resulting in 50 percent of the formula funding being tied up in state minimums, as opposed to 40 percent now. That means that only 50 percent of the funding is spent based on risk and need, not 80 percent as Sens. Collins and Lieberman claim.

To its credit, the Senate bill does put in place some accountability measures to try to prevent homeland-security funds from being wasted on non-homeland-security items. However, sending any amount of funding to a low-risk state is a waste of our scarce federal dollars, period.

The reluctance of the Senate to move to a system strictly based on risk is hardly surprising. Rural states are used to grabbing a relatively larger share of the federal pie and they worry that altering the grant formula could reduce their funding. And it is true that some of them will lose money. However, from the national perspective all Americans would benefit from using homeland-security money more effectively to reduce the risk of terrorism.

Homeland security should be based on the investigation, interdiction and elimination of terrorist threats. In that sense, homeland-security grants are not making us more secure. The grant programs — especially the first-responder grants — are predicated on the notion of cleaning up after terrorists successfully attack. This is a misallocation of federal resources. The Senate’s request that even greater portions of the DHS budget be handed out in grants to state and local governments is irresponsible.

To be sure, investing money on first responders is probably wise, but it shouldn’t be the role of the federal government.Abetter policy would guarantee a more responsible use of the money. For instance, when first-responder programs are federalized, the Wyoming congressman has no incentive admitting that his state is not a likely target or that if it ever were a target, the level of damage would be limited. By contrast, when first-responder programs are states’ responsibilities, Wyoming politicians have an incentive to assess risk and potential damages to their state accurately.

Congress should fix the grant program so that money is allocated strictly based on risk. The security of our nation depends on it. Unfortunately, the Senate bill does not achieve that goal.

Veronique de Rugy is a research scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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