Lawmakers Ponder the Governor’s Proposal to Give Police Departments $40 Million in 2015-16

Back in 2012, the Legislature and Governor Brown created a temporary grant program targeted toward local police departments. The intent was laudable: helping local law enforcement deal with some of the budget cuts they’d experienced during the Great Recession and its aftermath. This new grant program was supposed to last just three years, ending in 2014-15, the state’s current fiscal year.

But this “temporary” state funding looks to be turning into an ongoing commitment. The Governor proposes to extend the grant program into a fourth year by providing police departments with $40 million in 2015-16, the fiscal year that begins this coming July 1. This is the same amount of funding that these agencies currently receive and is double the $20 million that the Legislature initially approved for the 2012-13 fiscal year.

This issue is now before the Legislature’s budget conference committee, which has been meeting to iron out differences between the Assembly and Senate versions of the 2015-16 state budget. Both houses approved the Governor’s funding request, but attached certain conditions on how police departments would have to use some or all of the dollars.

Yet, when the conference committee heard this issue last week, the discussion wasn’t about how to craft a suitable compromise. Instead, it was — appropriately — about whether local police departments should receive any state dollars in 2015-16, particularly in light of the array of public systems and services at the state level that continue to operate with diminished funding.

A key concern for some lawmakers is whether local police actually need the state’s money. Under current law, agencies don’t have to report how they’re using the state funding they receive. Assemblymember Shirley Weber, vice-chair of the conference committee, said the Assembly hadn’t received “a clear response” as to what local police were going to use the additional $40 million for in 2015-16. Senator Mark Leno, the conference committee’s chair, called it “unsettling” that the state would consider providing another year of funding when there was no “documented need” for the money and when police departments across the state have combined budgets of roughly $10 billion to work with.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) also has been critical. The proposed $40 million “lacks sufficient justification” at a time when “local revenues appear to have recovered to pre-recession levels,” the LAO has reported. Furthermore, this small level of state funding — a relative drop in the bucket — “is unlikely to have a significant effect on the level of service provided by city law enforcement,” the LAO added.

With many Californians struggling to get by in the current uneven economic recovery, state policymakers could surely prioritize spending $40 million in a way that both helps families move up the economic ladder and promotes California’s future prosperity. Here’s one idea: Policymakers could redirect the $40 million from police departments to early care and education, creating either 5,100 child care slots or 4,400 full-day preschool slots for children in low-income working families.

The conference committee is scheduled to meet today to make final decisions on dozens of budget issues, possibly including the proposed police department grants. Budgets are about setting priorities; we’re about to find out where state lawmakers’ priorities lie.

— Scott Graves