WASHINGTON - The Bush administration intends to slash counterterrorism funding for police, firefighters, and rescue departments across the country by more than half next year, according to budget documents obtained by the Associated Press.
The Department of Homeland Security has given $23 billion to states and local communities to fight terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but the administration is not convinced that the money has been well spent and thinks the nation's highest-risk cities have largely satisfied their security needs.
The department wanted to provide $3.2 billion to help states and cities protect against terrorist attacks in 2009, but the White House said it would ask Congress for less than half - $1.4 billion, according to a Nov. 26 document. The plan calls for the elimination of programs for port security, transit security, and local emergency management operations in the next budget year. This is President Bush's last budget, and the new administration would have to operate with the funding decisions between Jan. 20 and Sept. 30, 2009.
The Homeland Security department and the White House Office of Management and Budget, which is in charge of the administration's spending plans, would not provide details about the funding cuts because nothing has been finalized. "It would be premature to speculate on any details that will or will not be a part of the next fiscal year budget," said Sean Kevelighan, Office of management and Budget spokesman, because negotiations between the White House and the Cabinet departments over the budget are not finished.
The proposal to drastically cut Homeland Security grants is at odds with some of the administration's policies. For example, the White House recently promised continued funding for state and regional intelligence "fusion centers" - information-sharing centers the administration deems critical in preventing another terrorist attack. Cutting the grants would limit money available for the centers.
The White House's plan to eliminate the port, transit, and other grants, which are popular with state and local officials, would not go into effect until Sept. 30, 2008. Congress is unlikely to support the cuts and will ultimately decide the fate of the programs and the funding levels when it hashes out the department's 2009 budget next year. The White House routinely seeks to cut the budget requests of federal departments, but the cuts proposed for 2009 Homeland Security grants are far deeper than the norm. Congress has yet to approve the department's 2008 plan.
"This budget proposal is dead on arrival," said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California. "This administration runs around the country scaring people and then when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, they say, 'Sorry, the bank is closed.' "
California receives a large share of the counterterrorism money each year and could lose more than $200 million under the White House plan.
Boxer was particularly incensed about the proposal to end money for port security - a big concern on the West Coast. "California's ports carry over 47 percent of all goods imported into the United States," she said. "A terrorist attack at any of California's ports could shut down our nation's port system and result in a mind-boggling loss for our nation's economy."
Bipartisan opposition to deep cuts emerged from New York, another state that would be hard hit.
"To zero out essential Homeland Security programs which have more to do with protecting Americans and fighting the war on terror than much of the money spent in Iraq shows how warped and out of touch this administration's priorities are," said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York.
The proposal "goes totally in the wrong direction," said Representative Peter King, Republican of New York. "This would be a very grave mistake, and I will do all I can to stop it."