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State House strips funds for security department

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Two years after Alabama became the first state in the country to establish a separate homeland security department, the state House has approved a budget that strips state funding from the agency.

The $1.53 billion General Fund budget approved by the Legislature last week includes no money for the Department of Homeland Security, which was established to deal with safety concerns that have arisen since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Homeland Security Director Jim Walker said the loss of funding could make it difficult to continue operations as a separate agency and hamper the ability to compete for a full share of future federal grants.

Walker said he can't understand why lawmakers would cut his agency's funding at a time when the threat of terrorism is a national concern.

"It is unthinkable that any legislator would suggest we should not be doing everything we possibly can to protect our state," Walker said. "There is simply no sound logic in gutting a state homeland security program that is repeatedly recognized as one of the best in the nation."

The General Fund budget passed the House on Wednesday night, when Democratic Party leaders in the chamber used procedural maneuvers to cut off a filibuster by Republicans, who support a spending plan offered by Gov. Bob Riley.

House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said he believes the Homeland Security funding would have been restored if lawmakers had gotten a chance to offer amendments.

The agency receives most of its money from federal grants and last year administered a $37 million grant that was spent to beef up law enforcement and emergency services across the state. The agency has also received a relatively small appropriation each year from the state, mostly to cover administrative costs like rent and utilities.

A budget proposed by Gov. Bob Riley provided $350,000 in state funding for the agency, but that money was stripped by members of a House budget writing committee, who expressed concern the agency was becoming too big and could continue to operate from the federal grants.

Budget in Senate

Hammett said he believes at least some of the agency's budget will be restored in the Senate.

"I think they will get enough for rent and utilities and whatever can't be paid from federal funds," he said.

Casting a tie-breaking vote to cut the agency's funding in the House committee was Rep. Jack Page, D-Gadsden, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who in 2003 sponsored legislation to create the agency. Page also serves as chairman of the Legislature's homeland security oversight committee.

Page said he and other legislators believe that the agency's administrative duties could be funded through the federal grant. He said he's also concerned that the agency has gotten too big and has not provided the oversight committee with an adequate contingency plan for how to deal with an emergency in Alabama. He said some legislators believe that the work of the agency could be done from within another department, such as the Alabama Emergency Management Agency or the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

Walker said federal rules prohibit the federal grant from being used to pay for rent and some other administrative expenses. He also said his agency has cooperated fully with the oversight committee.

"We have provided our Homeland Security Legislative Oversight Committee with every report or product it has requested, which includes quarterly status reports," Walker said. "I am not aware of any other requested product we have not provided."

During budget hearings earlier this year, Page and Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, had expressed concern that counties in their districts were slow to receive equipment purchased with last year's $37 million grant.

Bedford is chairman of the Senate committee that will consider the General Fund budget. He said his panel will consider restoring the funding, but said he believes the budget passed by the House "sends a message that they are not satisfied with the job that is being done."

'Hard economic times'

"These are hard economic times. All of us support homeland security, but we must decide if we are funding it the best way we can," Bedford said.

Riley wants to see the agency's funding maintained.

"This is an important part of Alabama's efforts to protect its citizens and respond to an attack. The governor doesn't understand why anyone would believe we should not do everything we can to protect Alabama," said Jeff Emerson, Riley's communications director.

Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, said Alabama's homeland security agency has been recognized for establishing a framework for other states.

"By doing this, the leadership of the House stuck a needle in the eye of the governor and said that homeland security is not important," Allen said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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