States Wage Offensive to Keep Military Bases Open
By Kathleen Hunter, Staff Writer
States whose economies rely heavily on U.S. military bases are waging an undeclared war against each other to protect their hometown installations from a threatened round of base closures next year.
State tactics differ from declaring base-preservation plans a state secret, to enlisting high-powered Washington, D.C., lobbying firms, to financing base improvements, to capitalizing on the strengths of their congressional delegations. But their ultimate missions are the same: Secure the future of their state's bases.
With military bases in all 50 states, the stakes involve tens of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars that the federal installations pump into the local economy.
States are on the offensive because the Department of Defense is slated in May 2005 to release a recommended list of bases to close or realign as part of the upcoming round of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) recommendations - a long-term plan to eliminate inefficiencies within the nation's armed forces. The DOD plans to close or realign 24 percent of the nation's 425 bases.
Florida is so intent on preserving its 21 bases that Gov. Jeb Bush set up a commission to give advice on how to avoid base closures and the Legislature passed a law in late April making the commission's work secret. "It's very competitive out there, and we want to do everything we can to protect our military bases," said state Sen. Mike Fasano (R), who sponsored the bill to exempt the commission from the state's open-meetings and open-records laws.
"Until BRAC is over, we don't want all of the other states to know what we are trying to do to protect our military bases and our military personnel here in Florida," Fasano said.
While Congress used to choose which bases to close, the decision now is made by a presidentially appointed BRAC commission in an attempt to take politics out of the decision-making process. Congress can only affirm or reject BRAC's decision. One result is that instead of focusing on Congress, states now are concentrating on staying off of the dreaded Pentagon list recommending base closings to the BRAC commission -- and for good reason. About 85 percent of installations on the recommended list in the last BRAC round in 1995 eventually were closed.
Using a set of criteria the DOD released in February, governors, state legislators, members of Congress and local government officials from many states are on a blitz to promote their states' bases. Tara Butler, a spokeswoman for the National Governors Association who specializes in military issues, said nearly every state has a commission charged with preventing BRAC-related closures.
"There are going to be winners and losers in the BRAC round," Butler said. "There will be bases that are closed and bases that are significantly realigned. And there are some bases that are downsized now that may end up increasing in importance."
Some states already have begun to bring in the big guns in the form of high-powered Washington lobbyists. Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich recently made headlines when he announced that Illinois had hired Fleishman-Hillard and the PMA Group two prominent lobbying and public-relations firms to "fight to save" Scott Air Force Base, Rock Island Arsenal and the state's two Air National Guard bases. Illinois will pay Fleishman-Hillard $180,000 and PMA $140,000.
"Both of these firms have had excellent experience with the process," said Andrew Ross, a Blagojevich spokesman. "They understand how it works. They will help Illinois present as strong a case as possible as to why these bases are essential and should remain open. ... The governor wanted to make sure that we bring people to the table who know and understand this process, who have the knowledge and expertise to help our state through this process."
Ross estimated that the facilities accounted for more than 70,000 jobs in the state and contributed upwards of $2.5 billion to the state's economy.
A growing number of states, including Florida, Texas and about a dozen others, also have hired private consultants to help avoid closure of their bases.
Another approach used by states is to finance base improvements to make the installations more closely fit the federal criteria for remaining open. The main criterion is a base's military value, a measure of how much it contributes to the military's training, operations and readiness. The condition of the base's facilities, including surrounding land, is also named as a factor in military value.
Since the release of the DOD criteria, a number of states are pursuing measures to improve their bases' infrastructure and services offered to military families. Minimizing encroachment, which involves civilian development infringing on bases, also has been a focus.
Texas, for example, late last year authorized up to $250 million in bonds to fund economic development projects that benefit defense communities or boost a military base's value. Texas' 18 major military installations employ a total of 230,000 military members, National Guard members and civilians and have an estimated annual impact of $44 billion on the state's economy.
In Florida, which also garners $44 billion in economic benefits from its bases, the Legislature has passed a comprehensive bill to provide grants for local infrastructure projects, such as transportation or security improvements, that aid military bases. It also qualifies military children for a number of educational benefits, including in-state tuition at Florida universities, and provides certain unemployment benefits and relocation programs for spouses of soldiers.
New Mexico is another state where the economy relies heavily on its military installations. Gen. Hanson Scott, spokesman for the state's Military Base Planning Commission, said there are no plans to hire a lobbying firm. He said the state plans to spiff up its bases and rely on its state and congressional officials. New Mexico's congressional delegation includes several heavy hitters, including long-time Sens. Pete Domenici (R ) and Jeff Bingaman (D), as well as Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee.
"We have a very, very strong congressional delegation and community leaders that understand our installations. Some states might not have that," Scott said.
U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., whose district includes Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands Missile Range, introduced a bill April 28 that would authorize a land swap between the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Pentagon. The deal is designed to give the DOD ownership of more land on four military bases in New Mexico and Texas. The bill's supporters claim the DOD would be less likely to close bases on which it owns all of the land. New Mexico's Wilson also has introduced a bill that would revise the Pentagon's BRAC criteria.
In congressional testimony, Pentagon officials have been adamant that they will recommend base closures based strictly on the DOD criteria and won't be swayed by lobbying efforts.
"Indeed, over the last several months, a week doesn't go by where I am not asked to meet with a state delegation, a delegation that a governor brings in with respect to mayors and county commissioners and others to explain as best I can the process that we are undertaking," Raymond DuBois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and environment, recently testified before a House panel.
The DOD's process calls for community meetings to solicit local input only after the BRAC recommendations are released.
Meanwhile, some members of Congress are questioning given the current war in Iraq and the stagnant job market at home whether the planned BRAC round should proceed at all. Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, has introduced a bill that would delay next year's base closures until 2007. The bill, which follows a failed effort last year to eliminate the closures altogether, is pending in the House Armed Services Committee.
As it stands, the BRAC list would be finalized in November of 2005. Authorized closures would be completed six years later.