Chertoff defends homeland security budget priorities

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a key House committee Wednesday that proposed cuts to state and local grant programs would help fund more important priorities.

"I believe that the budget that we proposed for 2009 is sound and responsible," Chertoff said. "Like any budget it reflects tough choices. The pie is only so large, and whenever you want to enlarge one slice [it takes away from another]."

The administration feels border and cyber security initiatives deserve larger slices next year because they pose relatively larger risks for the country, he added.

Both House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, and New York Rep. Peter T. King, the ranking Republican, said state and local homeland security grants should receive more funding, but did not engage Chertoff in a prolonged debate.

"At some point you will see that debate surface again," Thompson assured Chertoff. "There is some difference of opinion."

The president's fiscal 2009 budget request includes $2.2 billion for state and local homeland security grant programs, compared to the $4.1 billion appropriated for fiscal 2008.

House Homeland Security Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection Subcommittee Chairwoman Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, went a little further, asking Chertoff if enough money was requested to effectively secure mass transit, trucking and seaport environments, and generally help state and local governments ready themselves to respond effectively to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Under Bush's proposed budget, transit security grants would be reduced to $175 million in fiscal 2009, compared with the $400 million appropriated for fiscal 2008; and trucking homeland security grants would be cut to $8 million, down from the $16 million provided for this year, Jackson Lee said.

Chertoff reiterated "there is a limited amount of the pie," and said Urban Area Security Initiative grants can provide more money for mass transit systems and quick-response law enforcement teams for threats to transportation security.

The fiscal 2009 budget request also asks for more money to fund port security initiatives such as the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program and the development of a TWIC card reader, he added.

"I am confident that we have the money necessary for the program," Chertoff said.

Thompson expressed some disappointment that it took the department five years to begin issuing TWIC cards and cautioned that another two years could pass before a reader is ready for regular use.

"We're still just producing flash cards, not a security card," he said after the hearing.

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