Homeland security–or something else?

In the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, all levels of government have taken steps to improve their disaster- and terrorism-response capabilities. Opponents of some of the measures sitting on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk have argued that their real motivation of some of these bills comes from elsewhere.

SB 976–Ferries–Torlakson

Whenever the Bay Area suffers another major earthquake, the roads are almost certain to be a mess. Those who can will likely take to the water, said John Grubb, a spokesman for the Bay Area Council, a business-backed advocacy group. This was seen during the Great San Francisco Quake in 1906, the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, and in New York on 9/11.

“It’s always the water people evacuate on–because it’s still intact,” Grubb said. “The problem is we don’t have enough ferry boat infrastructure to replace even one bridge.”

That’s why the Council sponsored SB 976, a bill to consolidate control of ferry systems across the Bay Area. Senator Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, authored the bill and got it to the governor’s desk. The legislation builds on several bills relating to Bay Area ferries carried by Senate Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland.

SB 976 calls for multiple ferry systems representing around a dozen boats to be united in one system, called the San Francisco Bay Area Water Emergency Transportation Authority, or WETA. The idea is two-fold. First, it would aid disaster planning by ensuring boats could evacuate people and move in first-responders in a coordinated way. Second, Grubb said, it would improve and expand everyday ferry service, using a “BART on the Bay” concept. BART refers to the Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter-train system.

But many officials and commuters in the Vallejo area are crying foul over what they see as a hostile takeover of the four-vessel Vallejo Baylink Ferry system. Seven local mayors and a member of the Solano County Board of Supervisors sent a letter to the governor on September 27 urging him to veto the bill “because it does not achieve its intended purpose of establishing a comprehensive regional water emergency-transportation authority, and it could jeopardize the ferry system and economic vitality of the city of Vallejo.”

The signers, led by Vallejo Mayor Anthony Intintoli, object to the fact that neither the city of Vallejo or Solano County were given representation on the board. They also say there is no guarantee the new system would keep the same routes, nor is there a plan to compensate the Vallejo ferry system for it’s assets. They also noted their system’s excellent performance, serving 890,000 riders a year, who pay an unusually high 60 percent of the system’s operating costs out of their fares.

But most of all they appear to object to the fact that the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District was allowed to opt out of the plan–along with their five ferries. In the event of a disaster, Grubb noted, Golden Gate will cede control of their ferries. Under the planned expansion of the system, Grubb said, WETA will buy several new ferries; the Council had originally proposed 33 boats, but the actual number will likely be lower. The system will also purchase a hospital ship and create new terminals. Everyday riders will get new routes, he said, while the region will get a strong and resilient set of disaster-management tools.

An inland Los Angeles Republican–Assemblyman Mike Duvall, R-Brea–has taken up Vallejo’s cause. Duvall objected to the lack of local involvement, noting there was on one public hearing on the bill, held far from Vallejo in San Francisco. He rejected the notions that the reason more hearings weren’t held was because of the 52-day budget standoff, and that Vallejo’s ferries were purchased with mainly with state money in the first place. He also said the bill was heavily amended very late in the session.

“It’s pretty hard to read a bill when it comes you 40 pages long, still warm from the printer and you’ve got to vote on it,” Duvall said.

AB 1645–Firearms–La Malfa

It’s rare that a gun bill passes with little opposition–especially a pro gun, National Rifle Association-sponsored bill carried by a Republican in the California Legislature. But that’s exactly what happened with AB 1645 from Assemblyman Doug LaMalfa, D-Biggs.

The bill would bar the governor from “the seizure or confiscation of any firearm or ammunition from any individual who is lawfully carrying or possessing the firearm or ammunition” in a disaster or emergency zone. It followed several incidents during Hurricane Katrina, when police sought to disarm people who said they needed their guns to defend themselves.

One reason is that gun-control groups didn’t oppose it. Brian Malte, state legislative director with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said that his organization is focusing on getting Schwarzenegger to sign AB 1471, the microstamping bill from Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles.

“We see this as more of a law enforcement matter,” Malte said.
But there is a classic “would it or wouldn’t it” question lying behind AB 1645. Under the Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Act of 2007 signed into law by President George W. Bush a year ago, the federal government can deny Homeland Security funds to a state that seizes guns under these circumstances. Several states have passed laws to bring themselves into conformity with the federal law, but the question remains whether the governor would just need to still have this ability, or whether he would actually have to act on it.

Officials with the state Office of Emergency Services refused to comment, and La Malfa’s office did not return calls seeking comment. Sources in the Capitol said that they’d heard conflicting information on the matter.

A consultant for the Senate Public Safety did weigh in on the matter in their official analysis–concluding that the state would actually have to seize guns before it was an issue: “There is no provision in the federal statute to deny funds to any state that does not enact similar legislation.” The analysis also noted that local police would still have the ability to seize guns.

Perhaps in the wake of this analysis, the bill had a far harder time in Senate. It passed by a bare 21-16 margin in the upper house, after sailing through the Assembly 73-0.

AB 587–Antiterrorism–Karnette

About a year ago, we published a story about first-responder units who were unable to get federal Homeland Security money for training and equipment.

While she said she didn’t recall our story, called “Homeland Security bake sale,” Assemblywoman Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, has taken a step to fix this situation. Her bill, AB 587, would appropriate $5 million a year from the “Antiterrorism Fund” created under the states memorial license plate program. This money will be set aside for training and other spending by firefighters, police officers and other first responders.

Karnette said that she has long had an interest in making sure that money from license plates went to where it was supposed to go. But she also saw an oversight in the way Homela
nd Security money is distributed to states, and often doesn’t find it’s way to the people on the ground.

“There wasn’t any money for local first responders who need training,” Karnette said. “They’re the one who are going to be there to save your life.”

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