Whitefish was at the center of a debate on the floor of the U.S. Senate Thursday morning as Arizona’s two senators butted heads with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to dispute a $900,000 earmark funding a new emergency operations center in northwest Montana.
Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl introduced an amendment striking Tester’s earmark from the Homeland Security Appropriations bill. Kyl and his fellow Arizona Republican, Sen. John McCain, argued that the federal dollars allocated for border protection are limited, and it made little sense to devote that much funding to the U.S.-Canadian border, when resources are badly needed along the border with Mexico.
McCain, ballparking Whitefish’s population at around 5,000, estimated Tester’s earmark amounted to upwards of $150 per resident of Whitefish.
“Sooner or later the American people are going to reject this kind of pork barrel earmarking,” the 2008 GOP presidential nominee said.
When the two Arizona senators finished making their case, Tester, with a map of the Flathead on an easel behind him, emphatically went to bat for the funding, first by pointing out that Whitefish’s population is closer to 8,500, according to the 2000 census, and accusing Kyl of having “cherry-picked an amendment on the bill.”
“This is not an egregious expenditure,” Tester said. “This is not pork, this is something that will help the country meet its security needs.”
Tester went on to point out Whitefish’s central location amid millions of federal forest land, Glacier National Park, and an international border to the north.
“When we have emergencies it isn’t just terrorism,” he said. “We’re talking about emergency services – the local government’s supposed to pick up the tab for that? I don’t think so.”
Kyl responded that distribution of Homeland Security dollars “should be based strictly on risk,” not on the ability of a state’s senator to earmark dollars, in a jab at Tester’s seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Kyl’s amendment was defeated by a 36-59 vote.
Tester announced he had secured the funding for the operations center in a June 18 press release. The center, planned to be built off of Baker Avenue, will house Whitefish’s 911 call center, the police and fire departments, and the city court. It will also allow for enhanced radio communications among state, local and federal law enforcement agencies.
“This money will help make Whitefish safer and stronger,” Mayor Mike Jenson is quoted as saying in the release. “The new emergency operations center is going to be a vast improvement and a huge positive for everyone in this community. I want to thank Senator Tester for fighting for this facility.”
Whitefish will not receive the money until and unless President Barack Obama signs the Homeland Security Appropriations bill into law.
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