In this era of hyped-up security concerns about our southern border, why would a remote Montana border station with a daily average of three travelers get $15 million of stimulus money? Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus say it’s because they asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to fund projects in their state, whose border has been "unfairly ignored" (see HCN's story).
Napolitano, however, denies politics had anything to do with how $720 million in border upgrade funds were distributed, which the AP reports resulted in out-of-order funding as marginal projects jumped ahead of high-priority ones. Yet the Nogales, Ariz. border checkpoint, in Napolitano’s home state, will receive almost $200 million, five times more than any other project, according to the AP.
Another low-priority checkpoint in Westhope, N.D., serving only about 73 a day, will also receive $15 million, while a very high-priority checkpoint in Laredo, Texas, that serves more than 55,000 travelers a day got skipped over for funding.
In 2004, Congress ordered the Homeland Security Department to create an annually updated list of border repair and upgrade projects across the country, ranked according to traffic volume and security vulnerability among other factors, according to the AP. But it appears that projects were cherry-picked from the list:
Trent Frazier, who oversees the border projects, said the list Congress required is more like a meal plan. The administration can decide when to eat each dish, as long as everything eventually gets eaten.
Explaining why one project might get pushed ahead, Frazier said, “You just really liked pizza and you wanted to accelerate it.”
Members of Congress have been asking for a better explanation, but Homeland Security would not release its list, flying in the face of President Obama’s oft-mentioned commitment to government transparency.
Without justification for each project's funding, it looks like politics as usual in the capitol.