SIA pursues waiver to increase flow of port funding from DHS

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

WASHINGTON—The election is a memory, the robocalls have ceased and Congress is locked in a lame-duck session. While the so-called “fiscal cliff” is generating the lion’s share of discussion inside the Beltway, port funding is the talk of the town in the security profession.

At the Security Industry Association, attention is focused on obtaining a waiver for ports that would free up tens of millions of dollars—and possibly much more—for improvements through the Department of Homeland Security. The money has been held up due to a provision that requires grant recipients to match 25 percent of the funding, according to Marcus Dunn, director of government relations for SIA.

The mandate has been a barrier for cash-strapped ports, many of which are still suffering the effects of the recession. Grant applications have been approved for entry-gate improvements including video cameras and card readers, Dunn said, but much of the federal money has not been disbursed.

“We’re talking money that’s been there awhile, 2009 dollars that haven’t been used—millions of dollars that are not being utilized that could upgrade the ports,” Dunn told Security Systems News. “They’re all shovel-ready projects, the grants have been written. It’s easy stimulus.”

Dunn said the problem is purely bureaucratic: No one is sure who has the authority to grant the waiver. He said that SIA sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this year asking for help on the issue, but the money is still sitting in DHS coffers.

“Our interpretation was they said that if Congress wants this money to go out, they need to direct us to do that,” Dunn said. “Congress believes, based on our unofficial conversations, that DHS can do it. Nobody has really said no to the idea. … The fly in the ointment is getting people to stop what they’re doing, sit down, talk about this and say, ‘You’re right, this is a reasonable thing to do, let’s get it done.’”

To accelerate the process, Dunn said SIA met with a Homeland Security subcommittee in early November and planned to meet with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Ohio. Dunn said a meeting had also been scheduled for Dec. 13 with the bipartisan PORTS (Ports Opportunity, Renewal, Trade and Security) Caucus.

“If we get [the waiver] in the lame duck, it would just be fantastic,” he said. “We can ride this year out with a cowboy hat waving, one hand on the saddle, because that would be a big victory. If we don’t get it this year, then of course it would be something we address next year.”

On the state level, SIA recently sent a letter of opposition to Michigan Statehouse leadership regarding SB 1291 and SB 1292, legislation that the group says will circumvent current state law by weakening background checks on security systems installers.

SIA stated that the proposed legislation would contradict existing law, would be duplicative and would effectively create a new tax for homeowners seeking an electronic security solution.

“We are greatly concerned that the legislation would ignore or provide loopholes in state and federal criminal background check requirements,” wrote SIA Chairman Jay Hauhn. “We cannot imagine that any policymaker would seriously consider a bill that would allow companies to conduct ‘in-house’ background checks.”