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President Trump has taken a strong position against calls by some on the political left to “defund” police departments. At the same time, he continues to oppose congressional efforts to substantially increase federal aid to state and local governments that have been hit hard by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
These two views are at odds with one another. It is highly likely that without significant federal aid, cities and counties will, in fact, have to cut their law enforcement budgets—along with much other spending. To put it another way, the quickest way to slash local police budgets is to block federal assistance to state and local governments.
Big variation in police budgets
On average, all local governments spend about 6 percent of their budgets on law enforcement—the largest expenditures after the 40 percent they spend on K-12 education and the 10 percent they spend on health care.
But the story is more complicated, as this blog from my TPC colleague Richard Auxier shows. Municipal governments spend a larger share of their budgets on policing--on average about 14 percent. And some cities, such as Los Angeles, spend far more than that.
Critics of law enforcement funding point to these large numbers as a reason why police budgets should be cut. But there is another way to look at it: When local governments face massive revenue shortfalls—as they likely will in the coming budget year—they will look for cuts where the money is: K-12 education and law enforcement.
The high cost of COVID-19
The pandemic’s cost to state and local governments already has been high. April revenues fell in 34 states compared to last year and, in most, annual budget surpluses have turned to deficits. Revenues likely will fall far more in the coming months—though the rate of decline may moderate as the economy slowly gets back on its feet.
State and local governments have laid off or furloughed 1.5 million workers since March. And more jobs certainly will be on the chopping block when the next fiscal year begins (for most states) in less than a month.
States and cities (that generally must balance their budgets each year) already have begun revising their spending downward. In May, the National League of Cities estimated that cities, towns, and villages could lose $360 billion in tax revenue over the next two years.
The federal government provides only modest direct support for local policing—less than 1 percent of the $115 billion annual cost. But COVID-19 stimulus could provide temporary funding that local governments could use for a wide range of purposes, including—as Trump wishes—protecting law enforcement from budget cuts.
Haggling over HEROES
Today, Congress and the White House are at loggerheads over more coronavirus relief for state and local governments. The House-passed HEROES Act would distribute about $1 trillion to them, on top of the $150 billion included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed in March. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says he wants to limit any new round of funding, both because of its high cost and because, he says, it would reward states for their poor fiscal management. Trump goes even further. Yet, the fate of local police funding in the coming year will depend to a large degree on the outcome of that legislative debate.
An old rule of legislation says watch what they do, not what they say. “Defund the police” means many different things. But while Trump and McConnell say they want to protect local police budgets, scaling back legislation to boost federal assistance to state and local governments likely will help achieve the very goal they say they oppose-- and many protestors support.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.
Matt York/AP Photo