Stateline Story

States Vie to Stave Off Military Base Closings

Mike Richardson, of Homestead, Fla. isn't a real-estate agent, but he sounds like one touting the qualities of the nearby Air Force reserve base.

"Location, location, location," Richardson says, is the reason that Homestead AFB is so valuable to the U.S. military.

Not only is the base strategically located to influence events in the Caribbean and South America, he explains, but it also is a great training environment for fighter pilots.

For those reasons, and the enormous economic infusion that the base provides, Richardson says, the U.S. Department of Defense should spare Homestead from an impending budget axe, called Base Realignment and Closure, scheduled to be finalized in 2005.

The process will be underway by the end of this year, with the publication of a draft of the criteria to be used in deciding which bases to close.

The National Governors Association estimates that the Department of Defense could close up to 25 percent of the nation's military bases more closings than the four previous rounds of base closures combined.

The economic stakes of so many bases potentially closing are high for states.

Florida, for example, is home to 21 military bases, three unified commands and nearly 139,000 active and civilian DOD employees, according to figures from Republican Gov. Jeb Bush's office.

In addition, 52 of the state's 67 counties are home to companies with defense contracts, and more than 807,000 Floridians are employed directly or indirectly in defense-related jobs. All of that adds up to some $44 billion flowing into the state's economy.

Richardson, a retired U.S.A.F. colonel, is deeply involved with local and state efforts to support military operations in the area and make sure that they stay there.

Florida has an extended network of business, community and military groups, called the Florida Defense Alliance, which is dedicated to preserving military bases in the state. The Alliance is one of several initiatives the state has undertaken to cater to its military bases and defense-related industries.

Since 1999, Bush has met twice a year in a closed session with all of the state's base commanders, and each state agency has an internal military affairs liaison to optimize communication and cooperation with military installations.

In 1999, Florida also began awarding several million dollars of grants annually to communities and bases to develop infrastructure that would enhance military operations. And the state has added a lobbyist in its Washington, D.C. office to handle defense and space-related issues. In addition, Florida has passed several laws providing extra benefits to military personnel and their family members. These range from a measure allowing them to terminate leases early if they are transferred by military orders to a statute that provides extra tax incentives to service members who buy houses.

Bush's Advisory Council on Base Realignment is packed with former military leaders and big-dollar political contributors who help lobby for the state's interests.

Most states with military bases are following the Sunshine State's lead to some degree, says Tara Butler, an analyst with the National Governors' Association.

Texas, which boasts more than $43 billion in defense-related industry annually, has enacted similar measures in recent years with the formation of the Texas Military Preparedness Commission and new laws that reduce utility rates for military bases and give in-state college tuition to military members or their family, among other things.

The state's actions are meant to set a long-term pattern for assisting Texas's military bases, not as a band-aid solution for preventing base closures, said Mike Smith, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general and executive director of the Texas Military Preparedness Commission.

South Carolina has more recently taken actions to protect its military bases, with the formation of the South Carolina Military Base Task Force and the Governor's Military Base Advisory Committee. Gov. Mark Sanford (R) also has doled out $250,000 to local governments to help them lobby against base closures. The governor's office estimates that defense-related business is worth $4 billion for the state.

The negative effects of a base closing are immediate and may be long-lasting, Butler said. The Department of Defense begins distributing economic development grants right after the closures are announced, but the impacts can last 15 to 20 years, she said.

However, economic impact will not likely be an important factor in determining whether a base stays or goes.

"Military value will continue to be an element of the published selection criteria," according to information from the DoD. "In previous rounds ... the military value criteria took priority over the other criteria. However, in ... 2005, there is now a statutory requirement that military value be the primary consideration."

Other factors may be the age and condition of the base and how well the base could house another military unit and how much residential development has "encroached" on the base, Butler said.

The states are working not only to preserve their own military operations, but also to possibly capture somebody else's.

False closure lists have surfaced on the Internet, and some lobbying efforts have focused on disparaging another state's bases.

That hasn't been the case in Beaufort, S.C., home to two Marine Corps facilities and a Naval hospital, said W.R. "Skeet" Von Harten, vice chairman of the County Council and a retired Marine. But he points out that there is more hangar space available at the Marine Air Corps Station and other infrastructure that would facilitate joint basing.

And Homeland would gladly welcome them, too, Richardson said: "We would like to benefit from closures in other places."