Chertoff: Emergency responders deserve 'blunt' aid talk

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told senators on Wednesday that his department owes the nation's emergency responders "blunt" explanations about the level of funding for states and local communities.

Several senators on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee raised the issue of the funding formula for firefighters, police officers and other emergency workers during Chertoff's second appearance before Congress about the department's budget for next year.

"We owe ... pretty blunt talk to people," Chertoff said in response to questions about fluctuating funding levels from year to year for states. He added that the department never can eliminate every risk, and that states and local communities have the responsibility to fund "first responder" activities not related to homeland security.

"I will insist on having a formula that is transparent and reasonable," Chertoff said of his plans to review the funding formula and other missions of the department over the next 60-90 days.

But Chertoff later softened his stance, saying that he believes senators and the department "want the same thing" and agreeing that the department must retain a more "subtle" shift in funding levels from year to year.

Funding for first responders is a thorny issue for Congress. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate frequently have raised the issue since the president unveiled the department's fiscal 2006 budget in early February.

While many lawmakers have expressed support for the president's plan to allocate the funding based more on risk rather than factors such as population, they also have demanded further explanation from department officials about the criteria and implementation of the plan. Last year, urban lawmakers with high-risk cities like New York City fought with rural lawmakers about revamping the formula to give their states a larger piece of the pie.

Under Bush's new formula, the minimum funding received by each state would be reduced from 0.75 percent to 0.25 percent in order to allocate more money to high-risk areas. As a result, several rural states may lose significant funding next year.

Maine Republican Susan Collins, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation to preserve the 0.75 percent minimum but also to base the formula on vulnerabilities. Collins consistently has asked Homeland Security officials appearing before her committee to clarify their positions on such funding.

"We'll be working closely with you" on the issue, Collins said earlier this week during the confirmation hearing of Michael Jackson to serve as deputy secretary. The committee unanimously approved Jackson's nomination after Wednesday's hearing.

Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman, meanwhile, raised a second contentious issue in the president's budget -- increasing the security fee on airline tickets to add $2 billion to the department's bottom line.

"It's not a huge marginal cost," Chertoff argued about increasing the fee by $3. He said the plan amounts to the cost of a soft drink and a newspaper at airports.

The airline industry and several lawmakers oppose the proposal. "I anticipate some member of this body will have a different perspective," Coleman responded.

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