On a recent visit to New York, Mark Young was casually chatting with the ticket taker at the Empire State Building, only to have the conversation take an unexpected turn.
"He asked me where I was from. I said, 'Wyoming,' and he said, 'Why do you guys get all of the homeland security money?' " Mr. Young recounted. "He didn't even know that I was the fire chief [in Casper]," he noted, "or that I had anything to do with it."
Since Congress first dispensed money after 9/11 to help local officials prepare for future acts of terrorism, New Yorkers have been rankled by the notion that people in rural states like Wyoming get almost twice as much per capita as they do. It's a feeling based not only on having experienced 9/11 firsthand, but also in knowing that New York remains a top target.
This week, Congress might do something to change that. A House-Senate conference committee will decide how much risk should factor into the decision about how to distribute homeland security money. Big, vulnerable states like New York are in favor of a more risk-based formula, but they're getting a fight from lawmakers in small states, who contend they also have vulnerabilities and just as much right to protect themselves.
The dispute started earlier this year, when the Senate passed an appropriations bill that essentially shares 75 percent of homeland-security funds equally between the 50 states, with the other 25 percent being allocated according to risk. That's favored by most smaller states. But this July, the House passed an amendment to the Patriot Act that would turn this formula on its head. Only 25 percent would be shared equally by the states, although even to qualify for that, each state would have to prove why they needed the money. Border states could qualify for more. But most of the money would be given based totally on how much risk each location faced.
The 9/11 commission recommended more than a year ago that all homeland security money be allocated based on risk. Most terrorism experts and lawmakers from big states are in full agreement.
"The current formula is distributed as pork barrel, the same amount to everybody, no matter what, and it doesn't make sense," says Rep. Nita Lowey (D) of New York, who wrote the House amendment. "New Yorkers are not very pleased about being No. 1, but if we are No. 1 in the risk/threat/vulnerability category, we clearly should get the resources so that we can be prepared."
People from states like Wyoming recognize that New York has a case. But they believe they have vulnerabilities as well and an equal right to federal funds to protect themselves.
"My state has a great deal of energy production and infrastructure that involves substantial Homeland Security risk," wrote Sen. Craig Thomas (R) of Wyoming in an e-mail interview. "As we've seen the hurricanes impact our energy infrastructure on the Gulf Coast, it further underlines the importance of safeguarding our nation's energy interests."
Representative Lowey doesn't dispute this but says that under her formula, all Wyoming would have to do is to make a good case for why they should get more money.
"They shouldn't automatically get more per capita than states that have high risks. That's the bottom line," she says. "They'll be getting enough money to prepare their police, their firefighters, but fortunately they don't have the threats that we have in New York."
But Chief Young of Casper, Wyo., argues that looking at the issue on a per capita basis can be misleading. For instance, according to the Congressional Research Service, in 2005 Wyoming got $27.80 per person in homeland-security funds, and New York got $15.54. But the total dollar amounts that they translated into were vastly different. Wyoming's total was only $13.9 million, while New York's total was $298.3 million. "Dollarwise there's a big, big difference," says Young. "And I think we've spent our money very wisely."
Some smaller states and districts have been criticized for using homeland-security money to fund things like fitness programs, Segway scooters, air-conditioned garbage trucks, and even homeland-security rap songs.
Natrona County in Wyoming, where Casper is located, used its money to buy a new communications system so the police, fire, EMS, and public-health facilities can all speak with one another during a disaster. That's one of the top recommendations of the 9/11 commission - something New York, with a police department that's bigger than the FBI, is still working on accomplishing, primarily because of the cost. And that's one reason Lowey is determined that her amendment be accepted by the Senate as well as the House.
"We're all still part of the United States of America, and just like we all realized that we have to rise above our immediate needs and help those who've been impacted by Katrina," she says, "we need to make sure cities like New York and others that are facing tremendous threats get the money so they can prepare."
The conference committee is expected to make a decision this week.