WASHINGTON — Congressional budget-cutting could handcuff the federal grants now filling California law enforcement coffers. For politicians, this means dicey choices ahead.
On Wednesday, underscoring the real-world stakes, Justice Department officials quietly announced a $25 million grant for California from a federal law enforcement program that some in Congress want to cut. Earlier this week, Los Banos, Modesto and Merced received grants from the same program.
A separate law enforcement grant program beloved by California police chiefs and sheriffs is slated for elimination altogether.
Taken together, the two vulnerable grant programs pose a political dilemma that is perhaps most pronounced for conservatives who must choose between two alluring priorities: Saving money, or siding with cops.
"It's not a tough choice for me," Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said Wednesday. "I think it's absolutely irresponsible for members of Congress to cut law enforcement funding."
Even program skeptics acknowledge lawmakers may ultimately avoid dramatic funding cuts that can be cast as soft-on-crime.
"I'd expect some of the money to be restored, because most members have not given up their addiction to pork," David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, predicted Wednesday.
The funding announced this week come from the Edward Byrne Memorial grant program. The $25 million announced Wednesday will help the California Emergency Management Agency support local anti-drug and anti-gang efforts.
On Monday, from the same overall pot of money, Los Banos won a $14,034 grant for police equipment and Merced police secured $59,163 for an additional officer. On Tuesday, Modesto police and the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department shared a $186,199 grant for added staff and equipment.
"They've been overwhelmingly helpful," Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said of the two grant programs Wednesday. "It helps protect our level of service in the San Joaquin Valley."
Nationwide, the Byrne grant program provides about half-a-billion dollars annually. California's share in 2009 was $54 million, with individual cities receiving funds ranging from $614,000 for Sacramento and $403,000 for Fresno, to a modest $19,000 for San Luis Obispo.
The program also received a huge, one-time boost under a 2009 stimulus bill. Skeptics, though, have consistently questioned the program's cost-effectiveness, and former President George W. Bush sought unsuccessfully to end it.
This year, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has proposed cutting Byrne grant funding by 17 percent.
"Faced with record-high deficits, we have to rein in spending and prioritize what is most important," declared Rep. Bill Young, R-Kent., the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.
The same Fiscal 2012 spending bill eliminates altogether the separate Community Oriented Policing Services grant program. Much like the Byrne grants, the COPS program attracts applause from California law enforcement officials and skepticism from budget hawks.
"The COPS program basically pays state and local governments to do what they would do otherwise," Muhlhausen said. "There is no added benefit...and it has little or not effect on crime."
A Government Accountability Office study, though, concluded the COPS grants "contributed to declines in the crime rate" during the 1990s. The contribution was described as "modest."
California agencies have received more than $1.5 billion in COPS grants since the mid-1990s. The money flows through several channels and for several purposes.
The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney's Office, for instance, received a $187,000 grant for new equipment several years ago. More commonly, the federal funds pay for hiring officers. In 2009, for instance, the program steered $10.2 million to the Fresno Police Department, $9.5 million to the Sacramento Police Department and $1.5 million to the Merced Police Department for help with hiring officers.
The COPS grants last three years, after which local agencies are supposed to shoulder the full cost of the new officers. In Stanislaus County, Christianson said "we are prepared" to pick up the cost of eight community deputies hired with the help of a 2009 grant.
To restore COPS funding for next year, lawmakers must find someplace else in the federal budget to filch the money from. Some likely targets stand out.
"Look for NASA to take further hits," Muhlhausen said.
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