First responders first

January 31, 2003

PROXIMITY TO Washington has always been a special burden for Baltimore.

Besides the inevitable comparisons, there's kind of a protector role, as when the people of Baltimore had to drive out the British after they torched the capital city in the War of 1812. And when Washington policy-makers want to know about life in the real world - outside the Beltway - they most frequently call upon witnesses from Baltimore, who are available on short notice and can travel cheaply.

So it fell to Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley to puncture President Bush's boasts about all he's doing to protect the homeland, particularly the aid and comfort he says he's providing to the so-called first responders; police, firefighters and the like.

Apparently, there's been a lot less help than meets the eye.

"Please, Mr. President, no more teary tributes to our fallen police and fire heroes until you back up our living first responders with the tools and equipment they need to protect our nation," Mr. O'Malley said in comments aired nationally last Saturday as the Democratic Party's official response to the president's weekly radio address.

Baltimore, he says, has had to spend $11 million extra since the Sept. 11 attacks on securing government buildings, anti-terrorism planning, emergency drills and police overtime. But the feds have only coughed up $1 million so far to lighten the load.

The plea is heavily political. Mr. O'Malley is viewed as a rising star in his party, and his appeals for those on the front lines of homeland security contrast nicely with Democratic protests about Mr. Bush's proposals to cut taxes for the well-to-do.

But it is also correct that the president has put too low a priority on providing help to cash-strapped state, city and local governments that have suddenly been forced to prepare for a surprise military attack with the same funds that are supposed to be running schools, picking up trash and keeping the peace on Saturday nights.

Mr. Bush proposed to spend $3.5 billion in the current year's budget for first responders, much of it transferred from other accounts so it wasn't an increase from last year. That money is being held hostage to a budget standoff between Congress and the president; in the meantime, the homefolks are getting nothing.

Mayor O'Malley facetiously suggested that Baltimore and other cities may have to resort to fire hall bingo proceeds to meet the federal responsibility of providing for the "common defense."

A much better option would be for Mr. Bush and Congress to quickly agree on a fiscal 2003 budget that can pump some quick help to the states and then work out a fiscal 2004 spending plan that matches the president's rhetoric for protecting the homeland.

Common defense is, after all, the federal government's first responsibility.

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