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Fund the front line of defense

Tom Ridge sits atop the organizational chart, but the states and localities _ not the federal government _ form the front line of homeland defense. Whether patrolling outside U.S. ports, staffing biohazard teams or providing security at public places and events, the government's ability to respond in a timely manner hinges on preparedness at the local level. Washington needs to provide the help it promised for this massive effort.

Cash-strapped states proceeded in good faith after the Sept. 11 attacks to prepare and mobilize emergency workers, with the understanding that billions of dollars in federal aid were on the way for equipment, manpower and training. But the reluctance in Washington to fund this security has caused the nation's governors to join hands and plead for White House support.

Many states found a way to cover the added costs temporarily. But now, "we're saying "no more unfunded mandates,' " said Republican Gov. John Rowland of Connecticut. "We need more money, and we'll try to get what we can."

The administration asked Congress for $3.5-billion this year to assist state and local counterterrorism efforts. Then it stood by as two-thirds of that insufficient amount was diverted to other programs. Now that many governors and the Democratic presidential contenders have criticized the spending as too low, the administration has reversed itself, blaming Congress for diverting funds intended for counterterrorism expenses.

This blame-game is as hypocritical as it is meaningless. Even the full $3.5-billion was too little to boost security significantly. If homeland security chief Ridge wants a way to recover from the duct tape fiasco, he should announce a more ambitious and specific plan to boost state and local aid.

Beyond the airports, there are the seaports, mass transit, utilities and public health care systems to protect. More money is needed to insulate telecommunications, the backbone of the global economy. The decision by the House and Senate to establish subcommittees on homeland security spending should give this issue the priority it needs.

There are no clear boundary lines between broad law-enforcement needs and specific counterterrorism spending. The ability of first responders at the local level to mobilize in an emergency depends less on new gadgets than on everyday force levels and training. This should not be an issue between the White House and Congress or between Democrats and Republicans. Mayors and governors need help now.