Stateline Story

Lawmakers' Security Report Poses Questions

Ask state lawmakers what they're doing to make the country safe from terrorism and what you'll hear in reply is: We're asking questions, questions and more questions.

A report released Thursday (7/25) by a nationwide panel of state lawmakers meshes with the vision President Bush has articulated of a national partnership of federal, state and local governments. It offers page after page of tips on what to check up on between now and 2003, the next time most legislatures will convene again.

"The task force has worked closely with federal agencies, especially the Office of Homeland Security under the leadership of Gov. Tom Ridge, to ensure a seamless, coordinated approach to homeland security," panel co-chairman Rep. Wes Marsh (R-Ariz.) told an afternoon press conference at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Denver.

The report advises lawmakers to "review," "examine" or "identify" current emergency plans and resources in 17 different areas, ranging from agriculture and food security to the role of the National Guard in responding to attacks using biological, chemical or radiological weapons.

Among the lawmakers' suggestions:

  • State plans. Thorough review of state risk assessments, readiness plans and continuity of government provisions. On the last item, the Bush strategy focused tightly on the judiciary.
  • Cybersecurity. Requiring law enforcement agencies to address the threat of cyberterrorism to infrastructure such as energy grids, water supplies, transportation networks and the banking system that are heavily reliant upon computers.
  • Law enforcement and public records. Further consideration of electronic surveillance laws and new restrictions on access to public records, proposals that had limited success during this year's legislative sessions.
  • GIS. Broader use of geographic information systems (GIS) commonly used in land use planning to develop information about vulnerable assets and how best to protect them against natural disasters and terrorism.
  • Emergency communications. Development of incentives that would help state and local first responders link their wireless networks.
  • National Guard. A push for federal help in setting up Weapons of Mass Destruction Civil Support Teams in all 50 states. Currently, 26 states have such teams, while programs are developing in half a dozen more.

"In the months ahead, in the sessions to yet convene [in 2003], a lot of what you see in this report will be on the legislative agendas of the various states," said Pat O'Donnell, clerk of the Nebraska Legislature and a panel co-chairman.

The recommendations, issued by NCSL's Task Force on Protecting Democracy, do not mention the controversial Model State Emergency Health Powers Act, which experts drafted last fall in consultation with state groups like NCSL to help clarify public health authority during a biological attack.

Many lawmakers have voiced concerns about provisions in the legislation that they see as threats to civil liberties and medical privacy. But queries about various aspects of the bill such as quarantine procedures are included in several pages of public health questions.

While non-committal on specific state policies, the legislative lobbying group's recommendations to the federal government are geared to decisive action.

The report asks for federal aid for the safe storage and transportation of nuclear and other hazardous wastes, the coordination of federally-approved equipment lists for state and local first responders, prompt approval of federal support for the insurance industry and exclusive designation of radio spectrum for national emergencies.

It also calls for an advisory panel to the proposed Department of Homeland Security representing the "Big Seven" state and local government organizations.

During a conference call with Ridge Tuesday night, Sen. Richard Moore (D-Mass.), another panel leader, praised the former Pennsylvania governor for setting "a new standard for federal officials in communicating with state and local officials, especially state legislators."

But the report points to at least one divisive area in which state lawmakers bristle at federal input: the creation of minimum standards for state-issued ID cards.

Driver's licenses, key pieces of official identification that help Americans gain access to education and commercial, legal and public services, vaulted to the front of anti-terror concerns last fall when it was found that several terrorists involved in the Sept. 11 attacks obtained licenses by exploiting holes in the system.

"NCSL believes innovative and constructive solutions to security, identity and application concerns are best suited to resolution by states individually and collectively, without federal direction, mandates or preemption," wrote the 26-member panel, representing 24 states and both major parties as well as non-elected legislative staff.

Another priority for state lawmakers civic education and engagement measures didn't appear in the Bush strategy at all.

"Our democracy will be strong and able to resist the problems terrorism can put forth if ... all of our people understand why they're fighting, what they're defending," Moore said at the press conference.

Lawmakers in dozens of states considered more than 1,200 anti-terror bills touching on many aspects of the homeland security debate this year

An April NCSL report found few salient legislative trends, with a handful of states toughening penalties for terrorist activity and strengthening the hand of public health officials to respond to an attack.

Earlier this week, the panel extended its life by one year, in part to help legislatures identify possible funding and other resources within the states themselves. NCSL staff members said the task force's work has come at no extra cost to their organization or the lawmakers, whose participation is either self-funded or supported by standard legislative expense accounts.