- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2005

Lawmakers will vote this week on the final version of the $31.9 billion budget for the Department of Homeland Security, which includes more money for the Coast Guard but reduces funds for front-line responders.

The appropriations bill provides long-sought discretion for the department to allocate cash grants to state and local governments based on risk assessment, rather than population.

But the three biggest grant programs that fund training and equipment for state and local first responders have been cut back sharply — to $1.7 billion in 2006, from nearly $2.4 billion for 2005.

One of the three, the so-called High Threat, High Density Urban Area program, already is allocated on the basis of a departmental risk assessment. The other two, the State Homeland Security Grant Program and the Law Enforcement Terrorism Prevention blockgrant, are allocated on a per-capita basis, with each state and territory guaranteed a minimum 0.75 percent of the total.

The bill maintains the small state minimum, which accounts for about 40 percent of the program’s budget, but allows Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to allocate the remaining 60 percent according to risk.

Committee staff say the department has used a series of indices to allocate funds under the high-threat, high-density program.

“It’s different every year,” said one Democratic congressional aide.

In the House-Senate conference last week that finalized the bill’s text, the ranking member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, Minnesota Democrat, complained that a city in his district had gotten nothing in the first fiscal year of the program, $20 million in 2004 and $5 million for 2005.

He said he had asked department officials to explain the discrepancy, but “to say that their responses lacked clarity would be an understatement.”

Lawmakers representing the nation’s major cities — especially the New York delegation — have campaigned hard for an end to population-based distribution, but gave a cautious welcome to the bill.

“While New York will get a bigger piece of the pie, the overall pie is smaller, and it is unclear whether New York will get more money than last year,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

The Coast Guard’s Deepwater modernization program — a multiyear plan to replace the agency’s aging fleet of deep-water vessels — will receive $933.1 million in 2006, under the bill.

The allocation is $33 million less than the department’s budget request, but at one point it looked as if the program’s funding might be slashed in half by House Republicans — angered by what they said was the Coast Guard’s failure to plan for and keep Congress informed of the program’s progress. But that was before the Coast Guard earned high praise for its performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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