Law Enforcement in Montana Wary of Budget Cuts

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – State and local law enforcement officials in Montana say they are concerned federal budget cuts could mean less money for drug interdiction, community policing and other programs.

Members of the Republican-controlled House last week recommended cutting $100 billion to $175 billion this year.

Meeting in Billings with U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, law enforcement officials said any reduction in funds they receive would make it harder to deal with rising problems like prescription drug abuse, the northern border drug trade and the emergence of gangs in some of Montana’s larger cities.

Montana U.S. Marshal Darrell Bell said he’s heard similar concerns coming from across the state since he was sworn in Jan. 8.

“If you go to Great Falls or Missoula, it’s going to be the same points,” he told Baucus. “We would be extremely happy to maintain what we have.”

Baucus said law enforcement is a bedrock government service likely to be spared the deeper cuts possible for other spending programs. But he said Congress will be in “triage” mode in coming months as members seek to rein in a trillion-dollar deficit.

The Senate Finance Committee chairman added that getting money is always a challenge for rural states such as Montana.

The state received more than $30 million in U.S. Department of Justice funding last year and more than $74 million in 2009, with the latter figure including $38.2 million from the Obama administration stimulus act.

Montana has a single seat in the House, held by Republican Denny Rehberg. Rehberg this month was appointed by the leadership of the incoming GOP majority to chair one of 12 subcommittees of the House Appropriations Committee.

Asked to respond to worries about law enforcement cuts, he offered a statement that said in part, “there’s just not enough money to fund everything we want.”

“(M)oney is not infinite, and the irresponsible spending in the last four years has forced us to make tough choices today,” the statement continued. “No program is immune from waste so there are no more sacred cows.”

The 2011 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, is already one-third over and Congress has yet to approve a 2011 budget. Agencies have been operating on at 2010 rates and will at least until a stopgap spending bill expires March 4.

Baucus said the purpose of his Thursday meeting with law enforcement — attended by representatives of the Billings Police, Laurel Police, Montana Department of Justice and several other agencies — was to collect arguments against cuts that could hurt crime-fighting efforts.

Billings Deputy Chief Tim O’Connell offered a story from early in his career, when he worked in drug enforcement and federal money was much harder to come by.

“I used to have to borrow money from another detective to make a drug deal and have it back to him by the end of the day,” O’Connell said. “Without that (federal money) we’re not going to be able to keep up.”

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.