Tuesday, October 12, 2004


Big versus Little: Who's getting what

From today's New York Times:
Security Grants Still Streaming to Rural States

ANCHORAGE, Oct. 10 - In the nationwide scramble for domestic security dollars, officials in Alaska are in a predicament that would be the envy of most other states. They must figure out how to spend $2 million in federal money. he Department of Homeland Security rejected a proposal by Alaska to use the money to buy a jet, but indicated it would be "happy to entertain" further proposals for the $2 million. Officials are now obliging.

One of the nation's least populous states, Alaska is flush with domestic security grants, on a per-resident basis second only to Wyoming and about three times the amount allocated to New York over the past two years. Money is so readily available that the Northwest Arctic Borough, a desolate area of 7,300 people that straddles the Arctic Circle, recently stocked up on $233,000 worth of emergency radio equipment, decontamination tents, headlamps, night vision goggles, bullhorns - even rubber boots.

Alaska's good fortune highlights what many critics say is a serious failing in the way that America is fighting the battle against terrorism at home. While there is consensus that the threat of an attack should supersede politics as usual, the billions of federal dollars for terrorism preparedness are being doled out to states in much the same way as money for schools, bridges and other routine federal projects.

Despite repeated efforts in Congress to address the situation - the latest recently announced by House Republicans - federal money continues to be distributed by a formula that places a higher value on spreading the wealth among states than on assessing where the risk of a terrorist attack is greatest.

"No member wants to go home and say my state didn't get any of the money but you are paying for it," said Slade Gorton, a former three-term senator from Washington who was a Republican member of the independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks. The commission's final report in July harshly criticized the spending pattern, admonishing Congress to "not use this money as a pork barrel."

The administration of Gov. Frank H. Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican, wanted to purchase a jet to help "defend, deter or defeat opposition forces" that might threaten the state. "Security and transportation" for the governor was another stated priority. But amid complaints by some Democratic state lawmakers that the jet amounted to "an expensive chariot" for the governor, the Department of Homeland Security rejected the plan in August.

Though Democrats and Republicans feuded in Alaska, the bigger battle among states for homeland security spending is not being fought along partisan lines. Gary Winuk, chief deputy director of California's Office of Homeland Security, said that population, not party, had determined how the sides lined up. It is purely big state-small state," Mr. Winuk said. "Just look at what the small states get."

Alaska, which has 649,000 residents, received nearly $92 per resident in security funds over the last two years, compared with states like New York, which received $32; California, which received $22; and Texas and Florida, $21 each, according to a recent survey by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. The survey estimated $8.2 billion was allocated in 2003 and 2004 to state and local governments in so-called first responder domestic security assistance programs by the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services.

One result is that in the Alaska capital, Juneau, an isolated town of 31,000 that virtually shuts down when the last cruise ship leaves in September, the emergency programs manager says he is awash in federal money. The town has bought or ordered a robot for deactivating bombs, decontamination equipment, night-vision goggles, pharmaceutical stockpiles and a back-up emergency radio system. So far in 2004, Juneau has received $962,000 in security grants, and opportunities for more keep arising. "I don't have to go looking for grants, they are coming to me," said the manager, Michael R. Patterson. "The chief of police said very succinctly, 'I don't need more stuff anymore; I need more people.'"


Yet solving the problem is not as simple as taking money away from Alaska and giving it to California, as some of the most populous states would like. Population, many argue, is an equally imperfect measure of need, because potential threats vary greatly from one urban area to another.

Former Senator Gorton said there were serious concerns that small states would be left vulnerable if money was funneled only to the most threatened. "If you harden some targets, you soften others," he said, suggesting that terrorists would go shopping for targets in states where there was less protection.
My response is, A) That's a bogus argument, because we haven't hardened the major urban targets yet, at least not sufficiently; and B) The terrorists are never going to strike South Dakota or Wyoming or Montana because nobody lives there. Certainly not enough to make it worth their while.

The problem is, we've gone about this all wrong. Our approach to this problem has demonstrated one of the real drawbacks of federalism: sometimes, we really need to act like a country not just a collection of 50 separate states. What we should have done is asked the governor of each state to submit a list of the top 100 targets in his state and what it would cost to protect them. That list of 5000 targets should have then been prioritized by a group of experts in conjunction with a select committee of Senators and Representatives, a budget prepared, and then we should have set to work protecting them. Sure, it would have advertised what was - and, therefore, what was not - beeing protected, but it would have been a comprehensive, national strategy, rather than 50 independent, unrelated strategies. After those 5000 potential targets were hardened, we could have moved on to the next 5000. And so on and so on.

Not every state would have 100 targets that were equal to the 100 in some other state; New York, for example, would surely have more top priorities on its list than, say, Montana. But we're a country, dammit, and sometimes Montana just has to shut up and wait in line. It's foolish to overwhelm Alaska with money while New York State is still waiting. If the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is so important, fine; take care of it. But the money is coming from a nationwide pot, and I don't care, New York City is more important to the country than Anchorage. That's just an unavoidable fact. Treating security money as just another federal handout is no way to respond to the "war on terror."

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