Stateline Story

Tracking the Recession: Stimulus Police Funds Catch Legislators Off Guard

  • May 04, 2009
  • By John Gramlich

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 spike.

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 out.

Executive-branch agencies, such as police departments, state attorneys general 's 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 approve.

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 goes.

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 with.

Kansas state Sen. Tim Owens (R), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, raised a separate, more basic issue that echoes a recent partisan 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 said.

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 gone."

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.

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