Members of Congress press Inslee on plan to shift dollars away from drug task forces

In a letter, Washington Rep. Rick Larsen said eliminating funds could be “disastrous” for the state. Seven Democratic and Republican colleagues signed on.

By: - August 17, 2023 1:03 pm

Bags of fentanyl pills seized in a December 2022 investigation of a drug distribution operation in Whatcom County. This was a joint operation of several agencies including Whatcom County Drug and Gang Task Force and federal Drug Enforcement Administration. (Photo Courtesy of U.S. Department of Justice)

A bipartisan group of Washington’s congressional delegation has told Gov. Jay Inslee that the state’s plan to divert a sliver of federal funding away from regional crime-fighting and anti-drug task forces “could prove disastrous for Washington.”

Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen of Everett sent a letter to the governor earlier this month seeking answers on how the state intends to use Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant dollars doled out annually to states on a formula basis.

Washington has historically distributed its allotment to local and state law enforcement agencies and prosecutors’ offices to support staffing and equipment for the task forces. 

Currently, the state covers a portion of local government expenses for participating in the 16 task forces, at a cost of about $180,000 apiece per year, according to the state Department of Commerce.

Allotments to the local governments are assured through the end of next June, with no promises from the state after that, which is what frustrates members of Congress.

“These task forces must have long-term fiscal security,” wrote Larsen, whose 2nd Congressional District stretches north from Everett to the Canadian border and includes Island and San Juan counties. 

The task forces, he added, “are essential tools to help local communities fight the drug epidemic, and removing dedicated funding threatens their ongoing mission.”

More resources are needed, he wrote, as drug trafficking across the U.S.-Canada border has surged. In February, monthly drug seizures reached the highest levels of the last three years, he said.

Eliminating the grant funding “without first guaranteeing an alternative funding source could prove disastrous for Washington,” wrote Larsen.

The letter was signed by seven House colleagues: Democrats Suzan DelBene, Derek Kilmer, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, Marilyn Strickland and Kim Schrier and Republicans Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse.

Behind the frustration

Federal rules allow use of Byrne grant funds on a broad range of initiatives throughout the criminal justice system. States must write plans on how they will spend the money, and update them every five years.

It’s Washington’s latest strategic plan update that’s causing the rub. 

Task forces will not be assured a share of the dollars, which will be a little over $4 million in the next federal fiscal year. Rather, they will need to vie against other agencies and community groups in a new competitive grant process.

Spending priorities are evolving too. The plan calls for directing dollars toward improving technology and data gathering by law enforcement, increasing victim support services, and building stronger ties between police and the communities they serve. 

“We feel that with the new strategic plan, we are well positioned to deploy funds from the Byrne-JAG program to their highest and best use in the context of evolving community safety needs and practices in our state,” Kate Kelly, executive director of the Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention at the Department of Commerce, said in an email.

“Law enforcement agencies will still be eligible to apply for funding consistent with the criteria set out in the plan and as described in specific funding solicitations,” she said.

In the meantime, Commerce commissioned the National Policing Institute to assess several aspects of the operation of regional task forces.

The group will look at what they do, how they are funded and outcomes they produce. A review of local, state, and federal options for funding and how other states pay for them will be included. Kelly said the assessment can inform local and state funding decisions in the future.

Larsen, in the letter, asked if the state will seek other federal funds for the task forces, and if task force members will be sought out for the assessment.

An Inslee spokesman said the governor “shares a deep appreciation for the important role multijurisdictional task forces play in narcotics intervention and prevention efforts.”

“At the same time, we have equally urgent needs to expand overdose prevention efforts, support co-responders and care teams, and boost public awareness, particularly among teenagers,” Press Secretary Mike Faulk wrote in an email Thursday. “We are encouraged that there appears to be legislative interest in looking at other long-term funding options during this session.”

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.