WASHINGTON – A long-simmering conflict in Congress between rural and urban lawmakers over homeland security money is coming to a head as new legislation seeks to shift money to cities more likely to be struck by terror attacks.
Security officials have said publicly they want to redirect billions of dollars in grants to states and cities, following two years of complaints that less populated areas receive gifts of anti-terror cash they don't need, while major cities like New York argue they haven't gotten nearly enough.
But many of the big city advocates question how serious Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) is about changing the current system.
Ridge decided last year to send more money to 50 cities and 30 transit systems designated as high-density threat targets. Originally that list had only seven cities: New York, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle.
To Republican Rep. John Sweeney (search) of upstate New York, that shift smacks of old-fashioned pork-barrel spending.
"In words they've said it, but in actions they've exacerbated the situation by diluting the dollars going to these high density places," he said.
New York and other big cities complain the current program sent $38.31 per person to Wyoming in the 2004 budget, compared to just $5.47 per person to New York. Proponents of the current system argue that New York state has received about $624 million in the last two years, while Wyoming has gotten only $49 million.
The grants are designed to provide cash-strapped state and local first responder agencies with both training and equipment, for everything from hand-held radiological detectors to state-of-the-art patrol boats and trucks.
Fueling the fight is legislation by Rep. Chris Cox (search), a California Republican, that would scrap the current spread-it-around system and apportion $4.3 billion in homeland security grants to states and localities based strictly on threat analysis.
Rural and suburban regions are pushing back with their own proposal, championed by Ohio Republican Steve LaTourette (search).
His legislation would set aside 30 percent of grant money to be distributed evenly among states, and allow for homeland security money to be used for natural disasters like floods and hurricanes.
LaTourette is butting heads with fellow Republican Sweeney and New York City's Republican mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
"It's preposterous to award (money) by using natural disasters as a criteria," said the mayor's spokesman Ed Skyler.
Sweeney represents a rural district, but comes down firmly on the side of New York City.
He said the effort to send anti-terror cash to rural areas to the detriment of cities "looks greedy and trite, and there isn't a justification for it."
LaTourette counters that all around the United States, Americans regularly face emergencies from natural disasters.
LaTourette's position is supported by the American Public Works Association, a collection of local management officials who want to preserve the current system of distributing money far and wide.
If you take away that money, we're no longer focused on the things that hit our communities most," said APWA manager Kristina Tanasichuk.
The Bush administration's proposed 2005 budget for security grants tilts away from the rural areas and toward the cities — a political oddity, given that LaTourette's Ohio is a key swing state in the presidential election, while New York and California are solidly behind Democratic challenger John Kerry (search).
New York does have one political card to play: As host to the Republican convention, an event with major security concerns, the issue of security funding will be upfront and center when President Bush formally accepts his party's nomination.
In the current grant program, $2.2 billion was directed to states, and $725 million went to urban areas. The 2005 proposed budget would give $1.4 billion for urban areas and another $1.4 billion for state grants.
The cities will likely get help in their cause come July, when the commission investigating the Sept. 11 attacks releases its report.
The chairman of the commission, former New Jersey governor Tom Kean, has already called New York's relatively small share of homeland security dollars "outrageous."