The Deepest Cuts State Budgets in Crisis

Public Safety Funds Crucial During Slump, Officials Say

Gov. Martin O'Malley presents his budget plan today; law enforcement funding is one concern.
Gov. Martin O'Malley presents his budget plan today; law enforcement funding is one concern. (By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
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Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 21, 2009

If Maryland lawmakers slice into spending on public safety to help close an estimated $1.9 billion shortfall, recent history suggests that even small cuts could have a big effect.

In 2000, the legislature eliminated most funding for a small program to help counties curb car thefts so it could help pay for a package of transportation projects, said W. Ray Presley, executive director of the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council. Without the $2 million in aid to increase public awareness, ease information sharing among authorities and help pay salaries for extra prosecutors, he said, car thefts rose by almost 4,700, or 16 percent, the next year.

As Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) looks for ways to make up the potential $1.9 billion shortfall in next year's state budget, police agencies across the state are hoping that aid for law enforcement is spared. O'Malley did exempt many public safety positions from his recent announcement of unpaid furloughs required for state employees. He is scheduled to release his budget proposal today.

After the 2000 cutback, car thefts statewide continued to rise, peaking at 36,406 in 2003. O'Malley boosted funding for the program to $2.5 million in 2005. In 2007 -- for the first time since the budget cut seven years earlier -- car thefts in the state fell below 30,000.

With the help of the grant money and stepped-up local efforts, the drop in Prince George's County car thefts over the period has been precipitous, from 15,188 in 2005 to 8,673 last year.

"There's always a concern in this kind of economic environment when lawmakers are looking for cuts," said Joseph Asplen, president of the Maryland/DC Anti Car Theft Committee, who supports the grants. "There have been some reductions in car thefts, and that could make us a target, but if lawmakers subscribe to our way of thinking, the reason you've seen the reductions is because you've committed the resources."

Presley, whose council distributes the grants, said he believes funding for anti-theft efforts will remain in the budget O'Malley releases today. But after the legislature begins its work, it's anybody's guess, he said.

"What happens with the legislature down the road? They'll start going after the budget with a scalpel," Presley said. "The problem is that when you have a program like this and you have a concentration of efforts, thefts come down. . . . When you don't, like with any crime, you have a cause and effect."

Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-Anne Arundel), chairman of the subcommittee on public safety, transportation and environment, said that lawmakers face tough choices on the budget in coming months but that he believes funding for the anti-car theft grants, and for all public safety programs, should remain intact.

"I don't think you'll see any expansions," DeGrange said of O'Malley's budget proposal.

"I would be quite shocked to see any reductions" in public safety spending, he said.

It's unlikely, however, that all public safety programs will remain whole. A list of recommendations for midyear cuts prepared this month by O'Malley's budget secretary included a proposed 15 percent reduction in state aid to some local police programs.

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