- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

The nation's cash-strapped governors were in Washington this week, hat in hand, looking for money to pay for skyrocketing Medicaid bills, welfare reform costs and more road building. But many said they were worried about a far bigger, life and death issue: homeland defense.

What these governors wanted to know was this: After four terrorist attack alerts and a new, ominous warning from the Central Intelligence Agency chief that future attacks are more than likely, why isn't Congress moving more quickly on President Bush's $38 billion request for homeland security funding?

When Tom Ridge, head of the White House Homeland Security Office, finished briefing the governors Monday on his four-point plan to build a nationwide homeland defense apparatus, Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, chairman of the Republican Governors Association, put one question to him:

"Where is the sense of urgency in Congress" to get this money to the states that need to implement plans now for an eventuality that could come anywhere and at any time?

Mr. Ridge sidestepped any criticism of congressional appropriators, insisting "Congress is taking this very seriously." But there are no signals from Capitol Hill that it is. The House earlier this month took up campaign financing, a policy issue that does not even make the top 50 issues in voter surveys. The Senate, virtually paralyzed by Democratic gridlock, has been spinning its wheels with a business-as-usual attitude.

Incredibly, the president's fiscal 2003 request nearly $4 billion of which will go to the states is being treated like all other spending bills in a snails' pace appropriation process that can take months.

A day of interviews with nearly a dozen governors found them especially disturbed by all this, revealing that the tragic lessons of September 11 were not far from their minds.

All said their treasuries were depleted as a result of the economic slump. All said preparations to safeguard their citizens from terrorist attacks were going to cost a lot of money. All of them said the country could not afford to wait until the money is processed through the usual legislative and executive branch pipelines, which could take a year. Then the money must be run through the state legislative pipelines to get down to what Mr. Ridge calls "the first responders" at the local level.

"The terrorists aren't going to wait until the appropriations process is completed before attacking us again," one governor told me.

Many governors said homeland defense funding should be accelerated on an emergency, fast-track schedule ahead of all other pending legislation.

"It should be an emergency appropriations or an emergency supplemental process. Congress should run with it. We've already had four alerts. We can't afford to sit around waiting for the appropriations committees to act. We don't have time," Mr. Rowland said.

"Ask Americans what is more important to them right now, the campaign finance reform bill or homeland defense? It should be first things first," he said.

Michigan Gov. John Engler, chairman of the National Governors Association, said: "The states would welcome prompt action on this. There's nothing that says that the Congress has to wait until the president's entire budget is passed.

"Given the past practices on the budget, the governors may not get their money for more than a year if all goes according to normal schedule. That's a long time to wait," Mr. Engler said. He wants homeland defense to be put on "a faster track."

The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said, "Washington should make it a higher priority."

Virginia's new Democratic Gov. Mark Warner, noting that his was "one of the states attacked on 9-11," said Congress should "speed the process up."

Many governors in both parties said they had plans on the drawing board to beef up communications systems and other security programs to better respond to terrorist attacks or to prevent them from happening. "We need to take the precautionary steps now so that there is never another 9-11," said Republican Gov. Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho. "The sooner the better" said Gov Tony Knowles of Alaska, a Democrat.

The chilling briefing the governors heard from Donald Henderson, the new chief of the Office of Public Health Preparedness, only served to heighten their concerns and their impatience. "It is the biological weapons that worry us the most," Mt. Henderson said. "We have people out there with the ability to make large quantities of [weapons grade] anthrax. We have been very complacent" about this, he added.

What worries these governors is that Congress seems to have grown complacent about what needs to be done next. The spectacle of acting first on Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign finance reform bill which will double the amount of money these guys can rake in for their campaigns is sickening.

Homeland defense funding needs to be put on a legislative fast track and sent to the president as quickly as possible. What are they waiting for? Another attack?

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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