Pubdate: Sat, 12 Jan 2008
Source: Omaha World-Herald (NE)
Copyright: 2008 Omaha World-Herald Company
Author: Jake Thompson, World-Herald Bureau
Bookmark: (Cannabis)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)
Bookmark: (Methamphetamine)


Just before leaving town last month, Congress slashed funding for
federal drug task forces nationwide that combat illegal drug
trafficking, substance abuse, gang activity and violent crime.

Unknown to many lawmakers, a few House and Senate conference committee
members tucked major cuts in federal anti-drug grants -- popular with
law officers -- into a huge catchall spending bill at the 11th hour.

The bill's final version was made public the night of Dec. 16. With
little time for lawmakers to pore through its 3,400 pages, the House
approved it the next day; the Senate followed a day after that.

Only after Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska voted on the measure did he
learn that funding for the Byrne grant program will plunge by $355
million nationally, or 67 percent, in fiscal 2008.

"I was mad," said Terry, a Republican and longtime supporter of the
Byrne dollars.

"Those are invaluable dollars to fight the street war on drugs. That's
where it affects us: right in our neighborhoods."

Nebraska stands to see a drop from $3 million in 2007 to $1.1 million
in 2008. Iowa's share will drop from $4.2 million to $1.5 million,
according to the National Criminal Justice Association.

"Congress has just made the job of every police officer in this
country more difficult," said association president David

In Nebraska, the money has supported nine regional drug task forces
and one statewide drug task force since the early 1990s. Federal funds
also have been directed to larger cities such as Omaha, Lincoln, North
Platte and Scottsbluff for additional anti-drug work.

The cutbacks put in jeopardy about three dozen investigators, said
Mike Behm of the Nebraska Crime Commission. In addition, the task
forces face uncertainty.

"It's going to hurt," said interim Omaha Police Chief Eric

Omaha has used its federal money to fund a metro-area drug task force
for about 15 years. It has paid for investigators and overtime, and to
respond to incidents of violence.

"Of course, we're not going to stop responding to violence," Buske
said, "but it's a lot nicer to use federal funds than have to tap into
general fund dollars."

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., met this week with law enforcement officials
in the Nebraska Panhandle. They gave him an earful, saying they depend
on the federal money to support drug task forces that target
methamphetamine sales and distribution.

Meth is one of the fastest growing drug problems in the state. An
estimated 22,000 Nebraskans are addicted to meth, Nelson said.

He called the federal cuts "unacceptable."

In Iowa, the federal cutback will be "potentially devastating" to drug
task forces that cover 66 of the state's 99 counties, said Gary
Kendall, director of the Iowa Office of Drug Control Policy.

Statewide, 45 drug task force positions are on the line, and so are
another 13 devoted to drug treatment and prevention programs, Kendall

Annually in Iowa, 74 percent of cases involving such drugs as meth,
marijuana and cocaine are developed by drug task force members, he

"It's really grass roots law enforcement," Kendall

Across Nebraska, the drug task forces have led to the arrests of
several thousand people a year, said Behm.

They include doctors writing illegal prescriptions, meth traffickers
and dozens of people stopped for routine traffic violations and found
to have illegal drugs, said Capt. Mark Funkhouser, head of
investigative services at the State Patrol.

"It's a big deal, and I think it came as quite a surprise, "
Funkhouser said of the cuts.

While the Bush administration opposes the federal grant program and
has sought to eliminate it for several years, law enforcement
officials nationwide had thought it would be spared deep cuts,
Funkhouser said.

But in Congress' year-end budget battle with Bush over federal
spending, cuts to the drug task forces were added to a bill funding
nearly a dozen federal departments and thousands of programs, giving
lawmakers and supporters little time to stop them.

The administration has argued that the Byrne grant program doesn't
show clear results.

Last spring, Terry and several other lawmakers met with administration
officials and offered to develop performance measures. "We never heard
back from them," Terry said.

In 2006, faced with similar possible cuts, the task forces became an
issue in the Nebraska governor's race.

Then-candidate Tom Osborne criticized Gov. Dave Heineman for seeking
to spend $500,000 to study child welfare instead of steering state
money to fund the multi-agency drug task forces.

In the end, the Nebraska Legislature rejected Heineman's study and
approved $428,000 in state funds to cover the lost federal money.

This time, the state could be under pressure again.

Local agencies nationwide are calling for Congress to restore the
money with emergency spending before the 2008 budget year starts in

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, will try to win support for that idea when
Congress returns to Washington later this month, his spokeswoman said.

But given the tight federal budget, that could prove

Kendall said he's asked Gov. Chet Culver to seek a one-year
appropriation from the Legislature to make up for the lost federal
funds. Then he's hoping Congress will keep the program alive in future

"It's one of the most effective law enforcement programs we've got,"
Kendall said.
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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath