Despite Reservations, State Policymakers Provide Funding to Local Law Enforcement for a Fourth Straight Year

Despite the reservations of key lawmakers, temporary state funding for local law enforcement — which began in 2012 and was originally intended to expire today (July 1) — will continue for a fourth straight fiscal year under the 2015-16 budget agreement reached between lawmakers and Governor Brown.

As we’ve explained, the Governor sought to provide police departments with $40 million in unrestricted General Fund support in the 2015-16 fiscal year, which begins today. This is the same amount that departments received in 2014-15 — supposedly the final year of a three-year program for which there was no longer a documented need.

The Legislature initially balked. Lawmakers deleted the Governor’s funding and replaced it with two smaller pots of money for law enforcement agencies totaling $18 million, to be allocated based on legislators’ priorities. However, under the 2015-16 budget deal announced on June 16, half of the Governor’s proposed funding for police agencies — $20 million — was restored (with some strings attached), while support for the Legislature’s proposals was cut to $11 million, resulting in a total of $31 million going to local law enforcement agencies in 2015-16.

The debate leading up to the final deal exposed tensions between key legislators and the Administration over the Governor’s decision to prioritize a fourth year of unrestricted funding for police departments, even though (1) the program was intended to provide only three years of General Fund support, (2) the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended rejecting the proposal, and (3) many essential state services continue to be underfunded in the current uneven recovery from the Great Recession.

During the final meeting of the Legislature’s budget conference committee on June 9, Senator Mark Leno told a top official from the Department of Finance that “if there is yet another proposal” for police grants in the Governor’s proposed 2016-17 budget — to be released in January 2016 — “have no doubt that it won’t even be considered. This is the last of the last.” The Governor’s representative pushed back, noting that “sometimes we continue one-time programs; sometimes we end them. This is something that is in the Governor’s discretion in building the budget.”

We’re fully aware that $20 million, or even $31 million, is a relatively small amount of money when compared to the state’s $115 billion General Fund budget. Sacramento insiders tend to describe such amounts as “budget dust,” implying that a few million bucks here or there won’t really be missed. Still, $20 million is real money, particularly given the need to reinvest in critical state services as millions of Californians struggle to make ends meet.

Under a different set of priorities, $20 million would be enough to re-establish school-based dental services that were eliminated in 2009 and substantially expand efforts to move homeless CalWORKs families into stable housing. While the Legislature’s original version of the 2015-16 budget — passed on June 15 — would have made these investments (among others), the budget deal struck with the Governor dropped the funding for dental services and significantly scaled back lawmakers’ proposed investment in CalWORKs housing supports.

So now we’re left with two key questions: Will the Governor propose a fifth consecutive year of funding for local law enforcement when he releases his proposed 2016-17 budget next January? And if he does, will the Legislature give him the cold shoulder, as Senator Leno suggests? The answers will become clear as the 2016-17 budget debate unfolds beginning early next year.

— Scott Graves