DHS allocations draw ire even among some winners

Ever since the Department of Homeland Security announced its fiscal year 2006 grant allocations, many members of Congress from different parts of the country have decried cuts to their areas and to major cities such as New York and Washington. Meanwhile, Louisville, Ky., Omaha, Neb., Memphis, Tenn., and the few other places that actually received more grant money than in the past have become punch lines for lawmakers’ gripes.

Ever since the Department of Homeland Security announced its fiscal year 2006 grant allocations, many members of Congress from different parts of the country have decried cuts to their areas and to major cities such as New York and Washington. Meanwhile, Louisville, Ky., Omaha, Neb., Memphis, Tenn., and the few other places that actually received more grant money than in the past have become punch lines for lawmakers’ gripes.

As it turns out, the department would be hard-pressed to satisfy even some House members and candidates in those areas.

In Florida — which was the only state to receive basically the same amount of funding overall as it did in 2005 and where major cities saw significant increases — several of the gains came in areas with competitive House races this year. Incumbents are touting their efforts and justifying the gains while stressing room for improvement nationwide. Other candidates running in tight races are simply declaring that the money their areas received is insufficient.

Some are skeptical about giving Congress more discretion over the grants, as House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.) and others have suggested, but they all have their own ideas for improving the grant-allocation process.

Though most sympathize with New York and Washington, which both got 40 percent less grant money than they did in 2005, Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) denounced the two cities for their past use of funds and their officials’ comments surrounding King’s hearing on the issue last week.

Keller, who could face a tough challenge from Democrat Charlie Stuart this fall, fought successfully this year to win Orlando’s inclusion in the Urban Areas Security Initiative. The Homeland Security Department gave the city $9.4 million. Keller pointed to Orlando’s status as the world’s top vacation destination and research that describes Disney World as one of the top five U.S. sites for an attack.

He said he sympathized with the bigger cities’ complaints but also mentioned past reports of Washington officials using the money on Dale Carnegie public-speaking courses for sanitation workers and an emergency-preparedness rap song.

“They spend money on Carnegie courses and rap music, and then say, ‘Hey, give us a lot more money. We deserve it,’” Keller said. “It hurts them.”

He also had harsh words for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), whom Keller accused of “running his mouth inappropriately.” After last week’s hearing, Bloomberg criticized Congress for making decisions based on partisan politics instead of rational thought.

“On Sept. 16, 2005, Mayor Bloomberg was the first one to issue a press release opposing John Roberts for chief justice of the Supreme Court,” Keller said. “What the hell does a New York City mayor have to do with nominations for the U.S. Supreme Court?

“I think he was engaged in partisan shenanigans in the middle of his reelection bid, and now he’s inappropriately criticizing Congress for doing the same thing.”

Keller wants the allocations to be based on risk and the automatic percentage each state receives to be reduced, as put forth in a bill by Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.). Stuart could not be reached for comment.

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Rep. Clay Shaw (R) also has touted his leadership in getting the area on the list and securing $10 million. Previously, Fort Lauderdale had received no direct funding and had been at the mercy of Miami to share its grants.

After the announcement, Shaw said he was “exceptionally pleased” and cited the fact that Sept. 11 hijackers had trained in southern Florida.

But Shaw’s challenger in the 22nd District, Democrat Ron Klein, argues that it’s still not good enough. He sees the Fort Lauderdale-Miami situation recurring on a smaller scale because Broward County, where Fort Lauderdale is located, will get the money and decide how much to give to nearby Palm Beach County.

He also wants more money for the area and calls the cuts to New York and Washington “equally absurd.” He said Congress should take a zero-tolerance approach to pet projects and spend more overall on security grants. But he’s not sure how much authority Congress should exert.

“I don’t know necessarily whether Congress’s oversight is going to be any better — it may be more political — but I’m not convinced that Homeland Security, in its present form, is doing a good job of advocating what’s there,” Klein said.

Tampa’s grant funding increased more than $1 million, to $8.8 million, over last year. Republican Gus Bilirakis, running for the nearby 9th District seat of his retiring father, Rep. Michael Bilirakis (R), is open to congressional oversight of DHS’s allocation process but wary of security taking a back seat to politics, said his spokeswoman Liz Hittos.

Hittos noted the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995 as proof that terrorism can happen even in “the heartland of America.”

“He would certainly defer to the expertise and the knowledge that the people of Homeland Security have that the average citizen might not have,” Hittos said, adding, “Once you politicize the issue, national security becomes a secondary goal.”

Kathy Castor, the Democratic front-runner for the 11th District seat that includes Tampa and is held by gubernatorial candidate Rep. Jim Davis (D), called Tampa “analogous” to New York and Washington because it is the home of the military’s Special Operations Command Central and has a large port.

But she said the bump in funding the area got is still insufficient, arguing that valuable money has been wasted in the Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, in the war in Iraq and on members’ earmarks.

“I think they do need to exert a little more oversight,” Castor said, “but the problem may not be how they cut up the pie, but rather the size of the pie.”