Commentary

Old Political Habits Stand In The Way Of Public Safety


By Tim Ransdell, executive director, California Institute for Federal Policy Research, Washington D.C.
This opinion article appeared in the Oakland Tribune on September 12, 2004

More than any single event in recent memory, the events of three years ago jolted the American public and renewed its sense of national unity and common purpose.

In the weeks that followed the 9/11 attacks, the nation's elected representatives, too, vowed to set aside partisan and geographic rivalries and focus on restoring the safety and security of the nation.

But in a town as competitive as Washington, the all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit does not last long.

Just six weeks after 9/11, Congress was nearly unanimous in approving the wide-sweeping USA PATRIOT Act. Nevertheless, that bill included a little-known, 11th-hour addition that has turned out to be anything but unifying.

Neither the president's initial proposal nor early congressional drafts of the bill included the sentence. But in the 342-page final act -- unveiled just a day before passage -- there is a line requiring that no state receive less than three-quarters of a percent of any homeland security grant money distributed to state and local first responders.

The financial impact of this "small-state minimum" sounds like it would be an insignificant amount -- but it adds up to real money and a discrepancy at odds with any realistic terrorism threat.

Thanks to the minimum, the nation's least populated state -- Wyoming, which houses just one of every 580 Americans -- receives more than seven times as many federal homeland security formula grant dollars per person as California, the most populous state.

In federal fiscal year 2004, the U.S. government's primary commitment of financial support for state and local fire, police, health, safety and other emergency services sent more than $2 billion across the nation.

Of those funds, California received $5 for every man, woman and child. New York received just a few cents more per person.

In contrast, the corresponding number for North Dakota was $31; in Vermont, it was $32; and in Wyoming, the federal government spent $38 per capita.

Outraged by the spending gap, large states cry foul loudly, often and on a number of grounds. For one, the absence of any relationship between the program's allocation scheme and terrorism vulnerabilities or credible threat information.

As a result, portions of the nation with relatively little likelihood of becoming terror targets are now flush with federal security revenue, while areas with a known history of terror threats or an array of seemingly attractive targets are left to find security funding on their own -- or go without.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has repeatedly commented that the formula ought to be changed to reflect threat levels and concentrate funding in areas most likely to be targeted by a terrorist attack. Yet the grants continue to flow in the same fashion.

To the further chagrin of large states, another $1.4 billion in bioterrorism preparedness grants is distributed in a fashion that has less stark differences but still favors small states.

In an effort to mollify urban-centered critics and level the playing field to some extent, Congress created a second, smaller grant to help a few major metaropolitan areas.

The administration devised a classified allotment scheme that accounted for population density, terror threat information and the importance and vulnerability of "critical infrastructure assets" such as bridges, refineries, theme parks, military targets, ports and other potentially attractive terror targets.

Even though California's share of these special urban grants is much larger -- 20 percent compared with 8 percent of state and local grants -- the available funding pot is significantly smaller.

Thus, California's share of all federal homeland security dollars remains well below the national average, and far below the average for sparsely populated areas, even though the state is home to an eighth of the nation's population, has a multitude of national icons and transships nearly half of the nation's imported cargo containers.

Some in Congress are working to make changes.

U.S. Rep. Christopher Cox, R-Newport Beach, Chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, condemns the existing grant scheme for arbitrarily favoring one group of states over another and for distributing most homeland security grant dollars with no regard for threat or vulnerability.

Cox and his Democratic counterpart address this and many other homeland security issues in a bill that was approved unanimously by the committee, supported by many Californians and may come to the House floor soon.

But, thanks to a deal brokered 217 years ago, the bill may well stop there. Small states have held sway disproportionate to their size since the Connecticut Compromise of 1787 produced the U.S. Senate.

No matter how many votes obtained in the House of Representatives, any legislation that would undercut favors for small states faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where California has two votes, Vermont has two votes, Wyoming has two votes, etc.

Changing the funding scheme to promote geographic equity is not impossible. But, with little time remaining in this legislative session and the complex politics of state rivalries as an overlay, it is no easy task.

Even as unifying a topic as the security of our nation cannot overcome forces that have driven the nation's legislative process for more than two centuries.

Publications

Federal Formula Grants: Homeland Security

Local Homeland Security in California: Surveys of City Officials and State Residents

Local Homeland Security and Fiscal Uncertainty: Surveys of City Officials in California