Despite budget gaps, states beef up security

Adding state troopers may cost more than other ideas, such as roving wiretaps.

WASHINGTON

As state legislatures across America gather for their first sessions of 2002, they're taking up a host of proposed laws and funding priorities that could significantly boost the powers - and profile - of police and other law enforcers.

The fresh emphasis on security is bringing tougher state penalties for terrorism, better radio networks for police, and closer scrutiny of citizens - via everything from wiretapping to the renewal of a driver's license.

Some of the proposals are expensive, however. And they come at a time of dramatic state financial woes - with a total of $40 billion in revenue shortfalls expected in the 50 states this year. That makes for looming tough decisions on how to balance security, education, social services, and other priorities.

"There will be competition for - and reprioritizing of - funding," says Cheryl Runyon, a senior fellow at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

California, for instance, faces a budget tug of war. Gov. Gray Davis (D) wants to add 300 new state troopers to inspect commercial trucks and secure potential terror targets. Price tag: $90 million. That's on top of the $420 million in antiterror spending the state hadn't planned for.

Yet California's balance sheet is ominous: There's a $12 billion gap between revenues and spending in an overall state budget of $79 billion for the coming fiscal year. Raising taxes to cover the shortfall is an unpopular option, and Governor Davis says he won't push for it. So far, he's made or proposed many cuts, including some in education.

Tennessee, too, wants to add 50 state troopers by July at a cost of $5.3 million. But the state faces a record shortfall of $300 million to $400 million this year - and $800 million to $1 billion in the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Cheaper proposals

Given the iron-clad political will behind the push for security, most observers expect these and other expensive provisions to pass. Yet another type of legislation is virtually free - and is one of the most common being considered: expanding wiretap laws.

New York, Washington, California, Pennsylvania, and other states are considering "roving wiretap" provisions. They mimic new federal eavesdropping laws and allow authorities to track a suspect as he or she moves from phone to phone, rather than having to get a warrant each time.

Advocates say roving taps are crucial in the modern world of cellphones and other high-tech telecommunications devices. But the roving issue raises civil-liberties concerns: If, for instance, a suspect uses a neighbor's phone, that phone could be tapped.

Most state proposals would add the "roving" element only for terrorism-related taps. But some observers think this could open the door to roving taps in all cases. Since about 60 percent of wiretaps are carried out by local and state authorities, the shift may have a big impact on the power and profile of police.

Even though federal law already imposes tough punishments for terrorism, states are also considering tougher criminal penalties - including a proposal in Virginia to punish "evil masterminds" of terror. Other proposals call for stiffer penalties for hoaxes, which are likely to have more everyday impact. California is among those considering tough sanctions for fake attacks in the wake of the anthrax letters last fall.

Several states are also altering the driver's license process. New Jersey, Florida, and Virginia - all of which played unwitting host to Sept. 11 terrorists - are moving to beef up their ID restrictions. Florida, for instance, may make it a felony for anyone to sell or manufacture a counterfeit driver's license. It may also require non-citizens to show extra identification before being given a new or renewed license. In New Jersey, citizens may have to produce official copies of birth or marriage certificates to get new IDs.

Another common plan to quickly boost law-enforcement abilities are better radio systems. Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, and Pennsylvania are among states that want to spend millions upgrading or buying high-tech networks to link health workers to police, to ambulance drivers, to others. It's virtually noncontroversial - but expensive. Montana, for instance, would have to start from scratch and spend $150 million to build a network.

In a different light

Meanwhile, state legislatures are considering several nonterrorism issues in a different light. Given the war and a new national toughness, efforts to reform executions in Virginia seem to have been deflated. But anti-hate-crimes legislation in Colorado seems to have gotten a boost.

And in Maine, one law is getting fresh scrutiny: It prohibits citizens from raising money for police departments - and was invoked last year to prevent a well-intentioned schoolgirl from raising money for bulletproof vests for police dogs. It appears destined to be repealed.

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