Homeland conferees back more aid for high-risk states

Current restrictions have resulted in states like Wyoming receiving more grant funding per capita than New York during the last three years.

Urban lawmakers scored a victory Thursday when House-Senate conferees agreed to give states at greater risk of a terrorist attack or natural disaster more of the funding allocated for first-responder grants as part of the $30.8 billion fiscal 2006 Homeland Security spending bill.

The Senate may consider the conference bill on Thursday or Friday, while the House is likely to wait until next week.

"This is a continued step in the right direction," said Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y., about the first-responder grant issue, but he added that urban legislators must continue to fight for a lower minimum percentage in the USA PATRIOT Act reauthorization measure, a change that would free up more money for higher risk areas.

House-Senate conferees declined to reduce the percentage each state receives for first-responder grants, which is now mandated at 0.75 percent. But they did not tie the hands of the Bush administration to dole out the remaining funding on the basis of risk rather than population and population density. Current restrictions have resulted in states like Wyoming receiving more grant funding per capita than New York during the last three years.

The appropriators last year mandated in the department's spending measure that officials had to appropriate funding under the status quo formula, rather than giving the administration discretion to appropriate money on the basis of risk. The fight is a contentious issue between urban and rural lawmakers and likely to spark heated debate again when Congress considers the reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act. Sweeney earlier this year attached language to that measure to lower the minimum percentage to 0.25 percent and 0.45 percent for certain border states. The Bush administration has requested 0.25 percent. A Senate measure included a 0.55 percent minimum and up to 3 percent for larger states. Conferees Thursday also saved the Coast Guard's ambitious Deepwater procurement program from a severe cut next year, allocating $933 million for the agency to continue an initiative to modernize its cutters and helicopters. Lawmakers said the agency's much praised performance in rescuing victims of Hurricane Katrina helped its bidding.

"They did a helluva job," said House Homeland Security Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., who was previously adamant about cutting $500 million from the program because the agency failed to provide his panel with a complete report on its mission responsibilities this year. Rogers said the agency recently supplied the detailed report.

It appeared some of the increase came from money initially intended for first responders. The conference agreement included $3.3 billion in first-responder grants, well below the House bill's $3.6 billion provision and the Senate's $3.5 billion. House Democratic conferees, complaining about underfunded homeland security initiatives, offered an amendment to increase funding by $1.7 billion for disaster emergency planning and mitigation as well as transit, port, rail, chemical and border security, but conferees rejected it on a party-line vote. Republicans argued that the amendment would bust the budget allocation for the spending bill.