BY PAUL ROTHMAN
House and Senate negotiators have approved a $31.9 billion measure for the Homeland Security Department’s next budget year. It directs a higher percentage of first-responder grants to states that are deemed to have a greater risk of disaster. The measure would boost the agency’s budget by about 5 percent.
The bill, passed by the Senate on a voice vote, also would facilitate a Homeland Security Department reorganization that would strip disaster preparedness from the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency’s portfolio so that it could focus on responding to events like hurricanes and follow-up recovery efforts.
Democrats complained that the measure would weaken FEMA, which was an independent agency before it was folded into the newly created department in 2002. They also said it would shortchange local police, firefighters and emergency medical services as well as security for passenger rail and subway systems.
Two border security agencies would get 10 percent increases that, when added to emergency funds passed earlier this year, would pay for 1,500 new border patrol agents. That move reflects a desire by lawmakers to place more attention on missions other than screening airline passengers.
“The department needs to be nimble and responsive, not bureaucratic and slow. It needs to target limited resources on future threats, not simply the threats posed by the attacks of Sept. 11,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) told The Associated Press.
First-responder grants for states and local governments would total $3.3 billion, $680 billion less than last year, for a cut of about 17 percent. President Bush proposed financing a $1.7 billion budget increase for DHS with a $3 increase in the tax assessed each way on airline tickets.
Lawmakers rejected the idea, meaning it had to cut other DHS agencies to come up with the overall increase.
About two-thirds of first-responder grants would be allocated according to the risk of terrorist attack or natural disaster. It continues a trend toward a more risk-based distribution of the grants, a priority for states such as New York and New Jersey.
“While New York will get a bigger piece of the pie, the overall pie is smaller,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) says.
Despite the London subway bombings, the bill freezes rail and transit security grants at the current level of $150 million. Nearly $9 billion was approved for border security programs, enabling officials to hire approximately 1,000 new border patrol agents.
The bill largely endorses the reorganization plan announced by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in July. That plan would create a separate preparedness operation that would allow the beleaguered Federal Emergency Management Agency to focus on response and recovery.
BY PAUL ROTHMAN