First responder funding revamp approved by Senate panel

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday approved legislation to revamp the funding formula for first responder grants, despite arguments from a few panel members that the bill would not allocate enough funding on the basis of terrorist threats.

The bill, S. 21, would require the Homeland Security Department to use a "sliding scale" methodology when doling out funding to states for firefighters, police officers and other "first responders." Under the revised formula, each state would receive .55 percent of all homeland security grant funding. Larger states could receive a higher percentage -- up to 3 percent -- based on population and population density.

The secretary would allocate the remaining funding, which the panel estimated would be over 60 percent, on the basis of risk, vulnerabilities and needs of local communities to prevent, prepare and respond to a terrorist attack. The panel by voice vote approved the bill, which was introduced by Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine, and ranking Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.

"Formula fights are never pretty," acknowledged Collins Wednesday about the fight that often ensues between lawmakers during debates over changing a status quo formula. Collins said "regrettably" the debate over first responder funding has pitted urban lawmakers against their rural colleagues.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., the only lawmaker representing an urban state on the panel, said the legislation does not reflect a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission to base homeland security assistance "strictly on an assessment of risks and vulnerabilities."

He released a recent letter from 9/11 Commission Chairman Thomas Kean responding to a request from Lautenberg for his opinion on the issue. "I am hopeful the committee will use your bill as a basis for reform of the current distribution system for homeland security funding, which is deeply flawed," wrote Kean on April 4.

Lautenberg also criticized Collins and Lieberman for saying the legislation would increase the amount of funding each state would receive because the bill authorized $2.9 billion in fiscal 2006 funding for first responder grants.

President Bush proposed $2 billion in his fiscal 2006 budget request for first responders.

Lautenberg did add an amendment to the legislation directing the Homeland Security secretary to consider whether a local area had experienced prior terrorist attacks and whether it has been subject to higher threat levels under the department's color-coded advisory system.

The panel agreed to an amendment offered by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to establish six demonstration projects on the northern and southern borders to test communication systems across the borders.

The bill also requires the secretary to define essential capabilities for first responders and creates a first responder taskforce to advise the secretary on personnel, planning and equipment. To address abuse, waste and fraud of funding, the bill would require an annual audit by the Government Accountability Office and report to Congress. It also requires states to submit an annual report on their use of grant funds. It authorizes the secretary to terminate or reduce grant payments if a state or region fails to comply with certain requirements.

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