The Heritage Foundation recently issued a report authored by Matt Mayer, a former DHS executive in the Office of Grants and Training, analyzing federal, state and local homeland security budgets. As part of a project to advocate for greater participation by state and local governments in assuming homeland security responsibilities it includes a breakdown of homeland security spending by states that could be useful to policy makers.

While greater state and local involvement in protecting the homeland was a common mantra of the last administration, the new leadership at DHS seems to have increased the volume and focus of the message.

Secretary Napolitano drove this point home recently by stating in several different forums that the public needs to understand that FEMA is not a first responder. This is probably the most tangible explanation of FEMA’s role in disaster relief and one of the strongest arguments in changing public perception of the federal government’s role. This seems to dovetail nicely with Mr. Mayer’s proposition.

Mr. Mayer proposes that state and locals should take the lead in four key areas:
•    Preparedness
•    Disaster response
•    Internal immigration enforcement
•    counterterrorism

The proposal uses, in part, state and local homeland security budgets to argue that spending would be more effective if controlled by the state and local governments.

While the article doesn’t focus solely on homeland security grants, its most notable message is to Congress: reform the grant programs so that they are risked-based. Mr. Mayer writes, “Rather than continuing to spread federal funds using ’an inch thick and a mile wide’ mentality, Congress should reform the federal grant programs to target the maximum amount of federal funds at the highest-risk states, cities, and counties – where the funds could meaningfully increase the security of Americans.”

Mr. Mayer message is right on point. The grants process is coming dangerously close to looking like the highway funding program – everyone gets something and a few members get earmarks. While this may work for building highways and infrastructure it may actually be harmful to the purpose of homeland security grants.

(Disclaimer: I’m a fan of the Heritage Foundation and its work.)

Mr. Mayer will face a number of challenges.

The proposal, while ambitious may be overly ambitious in trying to diminish the federal role in security the homeland. Certainly preparedness, resiliency, and disaster response can be effectively done at the local level. There is a good argument that locals know what their communities need to do to make sure they are prepared for disasters and what they need to put in place so they can bounce back after a disaster.

However, local communities that are struggling with decreasing budgets and resources can’t be asked to enforce federal immigration laws or to gather, synthesize, analyze and operationalize intelligence. Intel forms the foundation of counterterrorism.

At the risk of being politically incorrect: without some oversight state and locals may spend their homeland security dollars on projects unrelated to homeland security. A recent news article interviewing a sheriff about the lack of flexibility in homeland security grants his department receives commented that he isn’t fighting a lot of terrorists in his town but he is struggling to keep up with a recent up-tick in crime. In other words, there are good arguments for having the federal government coordinate homeland security spending.

Policy makers should consider Mr. Mayer’s project and its goals. Even if overly ambitious in some respects – asking the federal government to give money back to the states without strings attached or asking Governors to refuse federal dollars – its instrument to effectuate change is money. And these days money seems to be the only way to motivate change. Good luck Mr. Mayer.

Jeffrey Sural, who currently serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP, is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Legislative Affairs at the Department of Homeland Security.

Jeff Sural serves as counsel in the Legislative & Public Policy Group at Alston & Bird, LLP. He will focus his practice on homeland security and transportation matters on Capitol Hill and in federal government agencies. Read More