Calling federal law enforcement funding “a house of cards,” regional justice officials asked Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to shield them from budget cuts.

State, local and federal law enforcement officials meeting Thursday with Baucus in Billings said their crime-fighting programs risked budgetary collapse if any of a half-dozen programs were trimmed by Congress.

“We've just built a house of cards,” said Dean Mahlum, of the multistate Rocky Mountain Information Network.

Mahlum's federal agency is the high-tech grapevine investigators at all levels use to share information about regional crimes, activities and conspiracies that pose a threat to public safety.

Baucus called regional law enforcement officials together to get a feel for what they couldn't do without and what challenges they now face.

Among the challenges, officials listed white supremacy, a growing gang culture, prescription drugs and crimes related to medical marijuana.

Local police specifically identified funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, as something they couldn't see cut.

The program helps task forces coordinate drug-fighting efforts. Baucus has been a major advocate of HIDTA, which divided $239 million among more than 400 counties across the United States in 2010.

Seven months ago, Congress discussed cutting roughly $30 million from HIDTA but eventually left it alone.

After the meeting, Baucus said he didn't think law enforcement spending would top the list for proposed cuts. The Senate crafted special resolutions to push law enforcement funding forward, unchanged, until March and would probably push it to Sept. 30, the end of the federal budget year.

“It's less vulnerable because it's so important,” Baucus said.

Cuts to police funding quickly erode the quality of life in communities, Baucus said, echoing sentiments made by police during the meeting.

Local police agencies have come to depend on federal funding for new officers, squad car computers and video cameras, said Tim O'Connell, deputy chief of the Billings Police Department.

Through grants for new hires, drug forfeiture money and task force funding, departments across the state have relied on a patchwork of money sources tied to the federal government.

With local and state governments looking at their own budget cuts, losing those federal funds would be troubling, Laurel Police Chief Rick Musson said.

Jeff Faycosh of the Montana Department of Justice said the federal government needs to spend more money on border security if it ever wants to cut into the drug trade and illegal immigration. He likened current efforts to “carrying water in cheesecloth.”

Contact Tom Lutey at tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288.

Contact Tom Lutey at

tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288

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