House votes to protect security grants for Vegas, other mid-sized cities

WASHINGTON — In a showdown between the biggest cities and smaller ones such as Las Vegas, the little guys prevailed on Thursday when the U.S. House voted on homeland security grants.

Nevada’s representatives and those from places such as Bridgeport, Conn., Columbus, Ohio, and Sacramento, Calif., engineered a 273-150 uprising against committee leaders who had proposed a new limit on grants set aside for "most-threatened" cities.

The leadership had written a 2012 homeland security bill to limit high-profile Urban Areas Security Initiative funding to 10 large cities deemed most at risk of a terrorist attack.

But that left out dozens of other cities, including Las Vegas, that have been receiving shares of more than $5 billion in UASI grants since they were authorized in 2002 after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

"Now is not the time to re-create the vacuum that existed prior to UASI," said Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev.

Heck and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., were among lawmakers who lobbied for an amendment that would scrap the 10-city limit and reopen eligibility. They prevailed.

"There were more members of Congress representing cities not in the top 10 than members that do," Berkley said.

The House Appropriations Committee in its annual spending bill for homeland security reduced UASI funding and refocused it only on the top cities that meet "high threat, high density" risk formulas set by the Department of Homeland Security.

During debate late Wednesday, Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said the change was "borne out of the need for reform that puts scarce dollars where they are needed the most. I don’t think anyone here would argue with that."

But Rep. Gwen Moore, a Democrat from Milwaukee, said that "it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to arbitrarily limit this funding."

She said, "We might as well fax al-Qaida the list of cities that will be losing funding."

The grants aim to bolster law enforcement and emergency preparedness in cities that might be in the potential cross hairs of al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, including homegrown ones. The grants take into account the severity of damages if an attack were to take place.

Over the years, eligibility for grants was broadened from the original seven cities to as many as 62 as of 2009, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Federal Emergency Management Agency funded 31 cities this year, including Las Vegas, which got $5.1 million.

A portion of the city’s grant is contributed to the Southern Nevada Counter-Terrorism Center, the "fusion center" that serves as a coordinating body for local and federal security agencies.

"UASI funding has been an essential part of that (fusion) center, and cutting off funding to that center now would put their excellent and possibly life­­saving work at risk," Berkley said during debate.

"At a time when states and local governments are struggling to balance their budgets and need our help more than ever to prevent and prepare for terrorist threats, this provision would be salt in the wounds," Berkley said.

Las Vegans have been ultra-sensitive to possible threats from terrorism since they learned that four of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers and fellow conspirators had visited the city weeks before carrying out the attacks. What they were doing in the city remains a mystery.

The city’s reputation for flesh and gambling make it a symbol of American excess and raises its profile as a target, the thinking goes. A well-timed strike on the Strip during a holiday weekend would be disastrous. An attack on Hoover Dam could cripple cities throughout the Southwest.

"According to the Department of Homeland Security, we have 221 elements of critical infrastructure and key resources, including the Hoover Dam and the new dam bypass bridge — the second-highest in bridge in the United States — and the world-famous Las Vegas Strip," Heck said.

"The Las Vegas area is also home to 17 of the world’s 20 largest hotels, with almost 149,000 hotel rooms."

This was not be the first time Las Vegas risked being dropped from the grant program. In 2006, the Department of Homeland Security proposed to exclude the city, provoking strong reactions from then-Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, Gov. Jim Gibbons and federal lawmakers. The agency reversed itself.

The debate this year pitted the smaller cities against New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other big cities that rank high on the threat list.

Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said the commission that studied the 9/11 attacks had recommended that UASI be focused on the most-threatened cities and not be used as a pork barrel.

She said the cities qualify for other homeland security grants. She said Nevada gets $10 million apart from its UASI funding.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.

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