Police Stimulus Funds Present Problems for Legislators


Three weeks after Congress approved his $787 billion
economic stimulus plan, President Obama traveled to cash-strapped Columbus,
Ohio, to highlight one segment of the workforce that would greatly benefit from
the huge infusion of federal cash: state and local law enforcement.

Obama attended a graduation
ceremony for 25 Columbus police recruits whose jobs were saved with the help of
some of the more than $4 billion in stimulus money for law enforcement that is
beginning to flow to states and localities.

“Because of this plan,
stories like the one we’re celebrating here in Columbus will soon take place all
across the nation,” Obama said at the March 6 ceremony.

Police, prosecutors and
other law enforcers around the country are welcoming the stimulus, particularly
after federal funding for state and local public safety initiatives plummeted
during the Bush administration’s last years. The money, they say, will buy new
equipment, pay for extra police patrols or — as Obama stressed in Ohio — avoid
layoffs or hire more manpower during a recession, when crime can

But for some state
legislators who recently attended the spring meeting of the National Conference
of State Legislatures in Washington, D.C., the sudden influx of hundreds of
millions of federal dollars for public safety presents its own set of questions
and concerns. They are alarmed that they have no stake in managing or overseeing
the money and are worried about what happens when the federal cash runs

Executive-branch agencies,
such as police departments, state attorneys general offices or state crime commissions,
usually handle federal grants for law enforcement. Most governors have named
“czars” to oversee how stimulus money is being spent.

But with so much stimulus
money at stake — and so much attention being focused on states’ oversight of it
— lawmakers want a seat at the table, too. For one thing, some of the federal
grants require state matches, which legislatures will need to

Massachusetts state Rep.
Mike Costello (D), who chairs the state’s Joint Committee on Public Safety and
Homeland Security, said at the NCSL meeting April 24 that he didn’t know what
stimulus law-enforcement money his state has applied for. Worse, he said, he
hoped that state lawmakers are not seeking to obtain state money for criminal
justice efforts in their districts that — unbeknownst to them — are getting
stimulus money as well.

With his state in the middle
of a fiscal “disaster,” Costello said, “duplicating funds” would be a waste. He
suggested convening an oversight hearing to ensure that all stakeholders in the
state are on the same page; in Pennsylvania, lawmakers already have held such a
hearing. Other states, such as California, have legislative oversight panels
that are supposed to track where all of the incoming stimulus money

Complicating the task for
state legislators is that the biggest single slice of the federal law
enforcement money — roughly $2 billion in federal grants that pay for everything
from drug task forces to prosecutors — will flow through states, not to them.
Executive agencies in the states re-distribute the money to cities and counties
for scores of initiatives that state legislators may not be familiar

Kansas state Sen. Tim Owens
(R), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, raised a separate, more basic
issue that echoes a recent debate among the nation’s governors over the stimulus plan’s unemployment
provisions: What happens when the federal money runs out?

While a handful of
Republican governors have considered rejecting stimulus money to expand help to
more of the unemployed — because, they say, it would amount to a tax increase on
business when the federal money expires — Owens is worried about expanding
criminal justice efforts using federal cash, only to have the state stuck with
the tab in the end.

“At some point you run out
of money. It’s one-time money and then it’s back on the locals,” he

If the locals can’t afford
the expanded spending when the stimulus funds expire, police officers or other
law enforcers could be out of a job.

Utah state Rep. Paul Ray (R) told Stateline.org that a city councilor in his district recently asked
him whether stimulus money could be used to hire four new police officers. Ray
said he told the councilor yes, “but in two to four years, that money’s

New Jersey doesn’t seem as
concerned. The state’s plan to ask for federal stimulus money to hire 150 new
state troopers anticipates retirements and other attrition in the force down the
road, said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman with the state attorney general’s office,
which oversees the state police.

Debate over the criminal
justice money in the stimulus also reflects some Republican legislators’
frustrations with the larger plan. Ray, who also serves as chair of a public
safety task force for the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative
state legislators’ association, said that while extra law enforcement help is
always welcome, he could not see how hiring more police officers will help boost
the economy.

called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act a “great spending bill,” but
“a lousy stimulus bill.”


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