Nevada’s representatives in Congress scrambled Wednesday night to preserve funding for Las Vegas through a program that distributes homeland security grants to “most-threatened” cities.
Reps. Shelley Berkley and Joe Heck joined lawmakers from other medium-sized cities such as Bridgeport Conn., Columbus, Ohio, and Sacramento, Calif., to protest a proposed change that would limit grants to 10 large cities deemed most at risk to terrorist attack.
The Urban Areas Security Initiative was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to bolster cities believed to be in the potential cross hairs for followup strikes by Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. Over the years, eligibility was extended to dozens of cities.
But 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.
Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, said the change was "born 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 during debate that "it is penny-wise and pound-foolish to arbitrarily limit this funding."
"We might as well fax Al Qaeda the list of cities that will be losing funding," she said.
Las Vegas this year received $5.1 million in UASI funding for disaster recovery planning and other projects, including the Southern Nevada Counter Terrorism Center, the so-called “fusion center” that serves as a coordinating body for local and federal security agencies.
But Clark County ranked only 21st in the risk assessment compiled by the Department of Homeland Security, and risks losing out on funding beyond this year if Congress revamps the program.
"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 life-saving 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 ever since they learned that four of the Sept. 11 hijackers and fellow conspirators had visited the city just weeks before carrying out the attacks. What they were doing there remains a mystery.
The city’s reputation for flesh and gambling make it a symbol of American excess and raise its profile as a target, the thinking goes. A well-timed strike on the Strip 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 would not be the first time Las Vegas risked being dropped from the grant program. In 2006, DHS proposed to exclude the city, provoking strong reactions from then-Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, Gov. Jim Gibbons and federal lawmakers. The agency ultimately reversed itself.
The debate this year pits 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., noted the blue ribbon 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. For instance, she pointed out Nevada gets $10 million apart from its UASI funding.
But Heck said, "now is not the time to re-create the vacuum that existed prior to UASI."
An amendment by Democratic Rep. Hansen Clarke of Detroit, would scrap the 10-city limit and allow all cities to compete for UASI funds. The House was expected to vote on it Thursday.
Meanwhile, Heck proposed a separate amendment that would have expanded eligibility to 25 cities — which presumably would have included Las Vegas. It was killed by voice vote after little discussion.
A spokesman said Heck agreed not to push for a full debate and recorded vote after he learned that Clarke was gathering backing for the broader amendment.