Anti-Terror Action Slower Than Expected

 

When lawmakers in nearly forty states returned to their capitals in January, two issues loomed large on the public agenda: the economy and terrorism.

Ongoing revenue shortfalls and constitutional balanced budget requirements meant lawmakers had no choice but to work on state finances.

And the deadly September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon seemed likely to bring swift and comprehensive state legislative action to reduce the threat of terrorist activity at home.

At a winter meeting of state lawmakers in Washington, DC, panel discussions on capitol security, criminal codes, public health and law enforcement powers, continuity of government provisions, public records access, streamlined communications networks, and the need for increased hazardous materials training and equipment dominated the debate.

But with regular sessions finished in eleven states and gavels ready to fall in another eight this month, less has happened than people expected. Tight finances and a mounting awareness of the complexity of homeland security issues have led legislatures to tackle problems one at a time. Some lawmakers and state policy analysts say anti-terror legislation has simply taken its place alongside more traditional matters, all subject to political concerns and all competing for scarce state dollars.

"Some of the political support has waned in the sense that the normal' type I put it in quotes - of activity in state government has come back to the front burners," says Massachusetts Sen. Richard Moore, the co-chairman of an anti-terror legislation task force established by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

So far, according to an anti-terrorism legislation database designed by the StateScape bill tracking service and available to Stateline.org users (click on StateScape logo on left side of homepage), Indiana has taken the broadest swing at anti-terror measures in 2002.Indiana has taken the broadest swing at anti-terror measures in 2002. A bill signed by Gov. Frank O'Bannon on March 26, created a counter-terrorism council, restricted the issuance of driver's licenses and hazardous materials permits, established an order of succession beyond the lieutenant governor and rewired the state's criminal statutes regarding terrorist activity.

Elsewhere, lawmakers took a less comprehensive approach:

  • New restrictions requiring non-citizens to have their immigration status verified before they can submit applications for driver's licenses was approved by the Kentucky General Assembly.
  • Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, South Dakota and Utah lawmakers approved legislation that refines definitions of terrorist crimes and stiffens penalties for terrorist activity.
  • Maryland and Virginia broadened their wiretapping provisions. Maryland authorized the use of "roving" wiretaps and Virginia gave towns the same authority to conduct wiretaps currently held by the state's cities and counties.
  • Tightly focused biological and chemical terrorism readiness bills passed in a few states like Indiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, South Dakota, Virginia and Washington.
  • Skyrocketing gasoline prices in the hours immediately after the September 11 attacks prompted Idaho, Indiana and West Virginia to enact measures to prevent "price gouging" for gasoline or other consumer items in a time of crisis, and
  • Wyoming expanded its crime compensation provisions to include victims of terrorist activity.

Many states took symbolic actions. Washington lawmakers authorized the display of American flags on school buses. The Virginia General Assembly adopted a series of resolutions that individually recognized victims of the attack on the Pentagon. Kentucky, New York and Virginia designated September 11 as a day to honor law enforcement and emergency personnel. Pennsylvania lawmakers urged that the crash site of United Airlines Flight 93 in a rural area of the Keystone State be preserved as a National Historic Battlefield.

Many bills have gone down in defeat. New definitions or penalties for terrorism failed in Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico and Utah. Consumer protection measures died in Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland and Washington. A host of patriotic license plate designs were rejected in at least three states. And Wyoming lawmakers rejected legislation authorizing the state's entry into the 45-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact.

Cashflow and Complexity

Lawmakers generally agree that anti-terror needs are no less important than they were last fall, when states acted quickly and with little concern for cost to help recovery efforts, respond to anthrax alarms and shore up security at state capitols, transportation hubs and other public places. But they're finding themselves hitting speed bumps like money, the complexity of homeland security logistics and objections to civil rights restrictions.

"I don't know if it's [lost] urgency," says NCSL anti-terror policy analyst Cheryl Runyon. "You're still competing with the budget, with education, with healthcare. You don't want to say that people have become complacent, but just that they have all of these other needs that they have to respond to and the dollars can only be stretched so far."

Questions about the amount and flexibility of pending federal aid for state and local terror readiness programs have also led legislatures to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.

In Colorado, security chief Sue Mencer told lawmakers to save their money until they know how much of President Bush's $3.5 billion request for state and local emergency response programs is coming their way.

Bureaucratic foot dragging has delayed $141 million in federal anti-terror equipment and training grants and the use of $65 million in grant money distributed to state and local officials over the last four years, the Justice Department reported yesterday (4/8).

Moore believes responsible actions to improve law enforcement and public health and safety preparations will only come with more study. "There certainly is a temptation there for local and even some state officials who have felt that they have been working on shoestring budgets in the past to all of a sudden jump for the latest toys, even though they may not be what they need," he says.

Moore spent three of his 34 years in local, state and federal government as an assistant director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he oversaw a building code investigation of the Oklahoma City federal building destroyed by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols. He says state lawmakers need a clearer understanding of the needs and duties of emergency response networks, public health systems, National Guard units and, last but not least, the directors of homeland security offices.

"We need to see whether we can develop some kind of job expectations for those folks. They're not given a very clear set of instructions of what to do. They're just given a title and an office and told go make us safer'," Moore told Stateline.org

Moore's committee plans to release a report by July "to advise [lawmakers] as to what policies they might want to pursue or at least critique what the executive branch is doing."

Civil Rights

If lawmakers are shying away from the costs and logistics of new security measures, they're also backing off anything that may appear as hasty or unnecessary infringements of civil liberties or access to public information.

Since Sept. 11, only six states -- Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Virginia and Washington -- have narrowed their open records laws or adopted statutes similar to the federal Patriot Act, which gives law enforcement authorities expanded search and wiretap powers.

Maryland's wiretap legislation passed only after lawmakers dropped a controversial provision that would have limited non-citizens' access to driver's licenses and deleted all mention of the word "terrorism," which lawmakers found themselves unable to define.

In Florida, where lawmakers took their first crack at security issues during a 2001 budget session, the legislature considered several new public records restrictions, but dropped most at the last minute under pressure from news organizations. Arizona lawmakers recently killed a bill that would have blocked access to records on public buildings and infrastructure.

Elsewhere, the debate continues. Legal experts in Louisiana and Vermont are advising lawmakers to turn down bills that would broaden the investigative powers of state and local police or impose stiffer penalties for terrorism.

 
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