SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Six years after the deadly attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, millions of dollars contributed by Californians to combat terrorism lie unused in a special memorial fund.
Tens of thousands of Californians have donated by buying $50 commemorative license plates in a program launched months after the suicidal assaults on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis as an urgency measure so funds could flow quickly, the program was touted as a way to help the state protect itself and to provide scholarships for dependents of state residents killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.
Few state agencies or families have benefited, however: About $7 million remains of the roughly $8 million collected from the sale of license plates featuring the American flag and a promise to Sept. 11 victims, reading, "We Will Never Forget."
Lou Baglietto, one of more than 65,000 California residents who bought a memorial plate, feels betrayed by the program.
"It's outrageous," he said. "A lot of people bought the plates because of 9/11, and if you thought this was going to make the state safer, you'd expect that the government would spend the money."
But state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, said doling out the money quickly would have been wasteful and inefficient.
"Is that really what people who bought these plates wanted to see?" DeVore said. "Teeny-tiny amounts of money going to communities all over the place?"
Accumulating enough sales in $50 license plates to truly make a difference in antiterrorism efforts takes years to achieve, he said.
"It's not a lot of money in the grand scheme of things," he said.
Legislation creating the program, Assembly Bill 1759, called for 15 percent of the funds to be used for scholarships to victims' families and for the remaining 85 percent to be appropriated by the Legislature for antiterrorism. It set no spending deadlines for the latter.
In years past, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislators discussed how best to use the antiterrorism fund, but no consensus was reached.
Schwarzenegger pushed to spend much of the Sept. 11 revenue on two essential public services, but much of it remains untapped, partly due to alternative funding available from state bonds and the federal government.
Specifically, Schwarzenegger proposed using $5 million for an antiterrorism program to assist mass transit agencies, and a separate $5 million to create a worker identification program to improve port security. Both died after talks with legislators.
The California Department of Food and Agriculture has taken the most substantive bite from the state's Sept. 11 fund, receiving $573,000 this fiscal year to protect against animal bioterrorism that could jeopardize the food chain or public health.
Sixteen college scholarships, totaling $5,000 apiece, have been awarded to dependents of Sept. 11 victims from California, records show.
Assemblywoman Betty Karnette, D-Long Beach, has proposed legislation to spend $4 million of the remaining funds for antiterrorism training - $2 million for local police and $2 million for local fire agencies.
Karnette's measure, Assembly Bill 587, is pending in the Senate.
Schwarzenegger has announced no position on the bill, but his administration's Office of Homeland Security was involved in talks that spawned the proposed $4 million appropriation.
"I think we've finally found a solution that not only everybody agrees to, but is the most effective," said Elaine Jennings, Homeland Security spokeswoman, who stressed that she could not speak for Schwarzenegger personally.
Karnette said she is saddened that little good has come thus far from the memorial program.
"I'm very disappointed," she said. "I sometimes think we do something in the Legislature and we assume that things will proceed as we hope they will, but if we don't check on them, they don't."
Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, said it makes no sense for millions in antiterrorist funds to sit idle in a state with dire security needs.
"It's unacceptable," he said.
Herb Wesson and Sen. Dave Cox proposed the Sept. 11 program when both were in the Assembly - Wesson as Assembly speaker, Cox as minority leader.
Wesson, a Los Angeles Democrat, and Cox, a Fair Oaks Republican, said they do not object to AB 587's push to spend $4 million for terrorism training.
But Wesson said his initial vision of the program was that the Sept. 11 money be spent expeditiously, not tucked away for years.
In 2004, his final year at the Capitol, Wesson failed in a push to divert $1 million from the fund to 14 major cities and counties, plus the Port of Stockton, for local antiterrorism efforts.
Schwarzenegger vetoed Wesson's proposal, Assembly Bill 1383.
"Allocating funds without strategically assessing where the greatest needs exist will not improve our ability to prevent, deter or respond to acts of terrorism," Schwarzenegger's veto message said.
Cox said he hopes the Sept. 11 fund - which generates about $1.3 million annually - can be used as matching funds to secure federal grants.
Cox said he has not been discouraged by the pace of spending.
"There's enough money there, a sizeable amount, that hopefully can be used for some meaningful benefit," Cox said.
If a terrorist strikes while millions of dollars sit idly in the Sept. 11 account, lawmakers will look foolish, critics say.
"Terrorism is not going to be stopped by some big, grandiose plan," said Baglietto, co-owner of Butterfield Communication, a public relations firm with ties to the Port of Long Beach.
"The bureaucracy in Sacramento isn't what needs the money most," he said. "It may not even be the big police agencies. It may be the small local agencies that need additional funding to train their first responders."
Cox countered that lawmakers would have risked being second-guessed regardless whether they spent the money quickly for small projects or accumulated it for larger ones.
"Listen," he said. "There are always consequences - for doing something and for not."