Why Clinton Crime Bill Doesn't Pay

Stephen C. Meyer
Reprinted from Insight, April 17, 1995

President Clinton has vowed to veto Republican attempts to rewrite last year's crime bill. The President says Republican "block grant" proposals could kill his plan to put 100,000 new police offers on the street. Republicans should welcome this challenge. Block grants will not only give states and communities more discretion about how to spend their money, as many Republicans have argued, but they could also give local communities more for the money they spend.

Consider Spokane, Washington. With former House Speaker Tom Foley as its representative, Spokane long enjoyed the benefits of the Congressional spoils system. Bike trails, libraries, money for the local Air Force Base, agricultural studies-Spokane and eastern Washington got them all. It also got a disproportionately large share of the first appropriation from last year's crime bill, despite a relatively low crime rate. Yet, what neither Spokane nor many other communities will get is their money's worth.

Cost and Benefits

During last fall's campaign, former Speaker Foley claimed that the $2.48 million dollar grant he had acquired for eastern Washington demonstrated the benefits of the Clinton crime bill. Upon inspection, however, it demonstrates no such thing. Instead, it shows in microcosm why the Clinton approach to crime doesn't pay, even for constituents of the most powerful members of Congress.

As Mr. Foley himself made clear (while flexing his muscles during the campaign), Spokane received more police from the crime bill than Seattle, San Francisco and other larger municipalities. Indeed, according to USA Today, Spokane received among the most officers of any city in the country, despite a relatively small population.

Even so, eastern Washington has not recouped, and is unlikely to recoup, what it will contribute to the $30 billion Clinton crime legislation, thus raising hard questions about why any community would look to Washington D.C. to hire its local police.

Community cost-benefit analysis should not be based upon comparisons between various cities or states, all of whom might be overall losers, but between what a given city or state will contribute to the legislation and what it will likely receive. This method of assessing benefits-and costs-reveals that even winners are losers in the Clinton crime bill shell game.

According to calculations made by economist Arthur Hall at the non-partisan Tax Foundation, Mr. Foley's former district contributes about $2.24 billion to the federal budget each year or about .15% of total federal outlays annually. Its pro rata contribution toward last year's $30 billion crime bill will, therefore, come to about $45.5 million. Its contribution toward the smaller $8.8 billion portion of the bill devoted to policing comes to $13.4 million.

Using the lower $13.4 million figure, and information about the number of officers funded (33 at about 62.5% of salary and benefits), it becomes possible to calculate the cost per officer per year. Assuming for the moment that eastern Washington has received all that it will receive from the crime bill, that cost comes to a whopping $229,000 per officer per year. Calculations taking into account ancillary costs and the district's total contribution to the crime bill yield figures as high as $930,000 per officer per year. Clearly, on this basis, eastern Washington would have done much better to hire its own police.

Of course, as Mr. Foley argued, eastern Washington may receive more funding for police in subsequent crime bill appropriations over the next five years.

Yet the numbers still don't add up. Even projecting last year's appropriation over the full term of the legislation-a dubious proposition given that Spokane's funding was "fast tracked" for the election year-the most eastern Washington would recoup would be $14.85 million, barely more than its pro rata contribution to policing and much less than its $45.5 million total.

Morever, the Spokane police department's "wish list" for expanded policing called for an additional 75 officers, 26 of which it (apparently) received last fall. Yet the 5th District's pro rata contribution to the policing portion of the crime bill is sufficient to pay the federal contribution toward 150 officers. Its contribution toward the whole crime bill-including spending for police, prisons and pork-could fund 500 officers.

Neither Spokane, nor eastern Washington, is likely to receive the officers it will pay for, however one makes the calculation. Under the provisions of the original Clinton crime bill local communities must compete against each other for federal grants from federal agencies such as HUD, HHS and the Department of Justice. These applications are evaluated based upon several criteria including rate of violent crime, use of community policing and current levels of staffing.

While Mr. Foley's introduction of Spokane's Chief Mangan to Justice Department officials does seem to have "fast tracked" consideration of Spokane's application, it is unlikely that even he could have succeeded in getting Spokane more officers than the city's police department has plans to use or ask for. Since Spokane has about 65% of the 5th district's population, it seems unlikely that any other community in the district could make up the difference either.

Expensive Generosity

Further, even if Spokane does receive all the police it will pay for, the city won't be able to afford the federal government's generosity. Grants under the crime bill provide about 60-75% of salary and benefits per officer. The city must cover the remaining portion of salary and benefits as well as equipment, training, overtime and ancillary capital expenditures such as vehicles. Police officials here estimate that under the Clinton bill the city must assume about half the actual cost of each newly funded officer for three years. After that, the city must assume the full amount.

Thus, even if Spokane received a federal contribution toward 150 officers (its full pro rata share of the policing portion of the bill) it would still have to assume $13,325,000 in ancillary and supplemental salary costs. This amount is sufficient to pay the full cost of the 75 officers it presently says it wants, but can't afford.

In short, the city will either receive fewer officers than the citizens here will pay for via federal taxes, or it will be "given" more officers than it can afford. Either way, Mr. Foley's ex-constituents would have done far better to hire the officers themselves. Republicans defending block grants should take heart. When it comes to crime, the Clinton plan does not pay.