- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

Lawmakers are braced for a showdown this week over the politically sensitive issue of how to distribute billions of federal homeland security dollars among state and local governments.

At issue is a bipartisan bill produced by the new House Select Committee on Homeland Security. It is designed to overhaul the grant program that this year will allocate $3.4 billion for firefighters, police and other frontline agencies.

But because of jurisdictional claims by other committees, the bill is being considered by three other panels as well, and its most radical proposal — to give the Department of Homeland Security authority to direct funding to places where it believes the risk of terrorist attack is greatest — looks likely to be the victim of election-year politics.

The current system, which allocates 10 times more cash per capita to American Samoa than to New York, has come under harsh criticism. Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg called it “a pork barrel slush fund.”

Federal officials generally do not comment on pending legislation, but Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge told a Senate appropriations panel earlier this year that the department wants more flexibility in how it allocated funds.

But changing the existing system, under which most money is distributed on a per-capita basis — with a small state and territory minimum that explains the high per-capita figure for Samoa — is a politically tricky task, especially in an election year when lawmakers often feel pressured to deliver federal largesse for their districts.

“It’s never fun to deal with this kind of legislation,” said Rep. Christopher Shays, Connecticut Republican.

The bill, which Mr. Shays helped draft, abolishes both state minimums and the population-based distribution formula. It allows Homeland Security to allocate funds based on the potential terrorist targets in a given state.

“The key is to concentrate the money where it is needed most,” Mr. Shays said.

The funding bill is the first substantive piece of legislation to come out of the new — and still temporary — House Select Committee on Homeland Security, and is seen by many observers as a litmus test of the fledging committee’s ability to carve out a niche for itself in the competitive territory of committee jurisdiction.

The bill is scheduled to be considered by the Judiciary Committee next.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee endorsed the proposed law last week, but the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee extensively rewrote it, reinstating the small state minimum and changing the criteria for allocating the remaining money. Under the rewritten version, officials must take into account not just the threat and the risk of terrorism, but of every kind of disaster — including natural ones such as hurricanes and wildfires.

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