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A Venerable Grant Is Slashed

Byrne/JAG Threatened in Omnibus

When budgets are tight, something has to give. Unfortunately for law enforcement officials, it’s the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program that’s on the chopping block.

After years of full funding for the program, which provides grants to state and local law enforcement authorities, Congress chopped its appropriation from $520 million to $170 million in the 2008 omnibus appropriations bill.

And that didn’t sit well with numerous law enforcement and local government associations. They argue that the cuts will force many of the multijurisdictional, multiagency drug, gang and violent-crime task forces, which are funded by the Byrne/JAG grants, to shutter their doors.

“It’s a systematic approach to combatting crime,” said Donald Murray of the National Association of Counties.

Angered by the funding cuts, an alliance of about 30 law enforcement and local government groups, including the National Criminal Justice Association, the National Alliance of State Drug Enforcement Agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the National Governors Association, have been lobbying Congress to restore funding in another legislative vehicle.

So far the effort has been unsuccessful.

Ronald Brooks, president of the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition, which represents some 40,000 local, state and federal narcotic officers, says the groups redoubled its efforts this spring working to get more money into the war supplemental.

Despite widespread support in Congress — 218 House Members and 56 Senators have signed letters of support — the Byrne/JAG appropriation was stripped out at the last minute.

“Many of our supporters were stunned that it had been cut out in the 11th hour by leadership and the administration,” Brooks said. “To add insult to injury, $684 million went into foreign aid to assist foreign law enforcement.”

Kirstin Brost, a spokeswoman for House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), says her boss is well aware of the cuts — and doesn’t like them.

“Chairman Obey has fought Republican cuts to Byrne grants every year,” Brost said in an e-mail. “Last year the House-passed bill actually increased their funding. It was the President who used his veto authority and the Republicans in Congress who supported him that forced irresponsible cuts to domestic priorities across the board.”

The groups’ latest vehicle is the stimulus package being drafted in the Senate.

“There is widespread support on a bipartisan basis,” said Susan Parnas Fredrick of the National Conference of State Legislatures. “The key will be whether leadership [will] put it on the table and keep it there.”

This isn’t the first time the program has faced obstacles. Since 2005, the Bush administration has tried to zero out Byrne/JAG. But Congress has always responded by funding the popular program.

Small-government groups such as Americans for Tax Reform and Citizens Against Government Waste have also come out against the program. Their biggest argument: Stop using federal dollars for state and local issues.

“It’s kind of like public assistance for law enforcement because they get money year after year after year,” said Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance. “As it stands, the Justice Department is just passing money out like candy and some of the states are doing crazy things with it.”