REGISTER STAFF WRITER
March 8, 2006
The president's messenger got a lukewarm reception in Iowa.
While law enforcement officials and legislators were happy to receive kudos Tuesday from national drug czar John Walters for Iowa's efforts to combat methamphetamine, many disliked the federal budget news that he brought to the Statehouse.
The Bush administration, Walters confirmed, will be shifting more federal money earmarked for battling meth and other drugs to homeland security efforts. However, states will still be able to make choices as to how some of that money will be used, Walters said.
"That's just double-talk," said Des Moines Police Chief William McCarthy, who has been arguing his own case for more money for anti-terrorism efforts in Des Moines. "We set priorities. We don't pit them against one another."
The visit from Walters proved an opportunity for several powerful officials, particularly Democrats, to vent publicly about roughly $12.7 million that the administration has proposed eliminating from Iowa criminal justice programs by 2007.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ia., and others have said the cuts could cripple Iowa's drug enforcement efforts, potentially wiping out as many as 25 task forces and affecting up to 70 crime-control projects statewide.
Already, Iowa has sustained a 57 percent cut over the last two years from two key federal funds that pay for drug task forces and treatment programs for drug offenders, state officials have said. At stake in the next budget debate is money that pays for everything from undercover drug agents to meth treatment to bullet-proof vests.
State officials acknowledge that drug arrests, which had been at a high point, have begun to decline since Iowa clamped down on meth-making last year. Drug offenses overall are down 6 percent since a new state law that greatly restricted the sale of meth's main ingredient, pseudoephedrine, took effect in May 2005.
However, imported drugs — especially crystal meth — remain abundant. Law enforcement officials say their ability to catch traffickers hinges greatly on the federal money.
"This is being done to law enforcement in the name of homeland security," said Polk County Attorney John Sarcone. "But there really is no greater homeland security need than trying to stop our society from crumbling within."
Walters tried to paint a more hopeful picture.
During a news conference with Gov. Tom Vilsack and afterward, he commended state and local officials for leading what has become an international effort to place much tighter restrictions on sales of pseudoephedrine. He thanked them for passing a law that has reduced meth labs by 76 percent in Iowa and paved the way for state and national legislators to take similar action.
"You have given an enormous gift to the country," Walters said.
Although terrorism and the federal deficit are forcing tough budget decisions, he said, the federal government is making progress in the drug war — particularly on the meth front.
Mexico has reached an agreement with the United States to quit importing much more pseudoephedrine than it legitimately needs. Talks are continuing with ambassadors in China, Germany and India - pseudoephedrine's three key producers — to prevent the mass diversion of pseudoephedrine to meth makers in Mexico, Asia and elsewhere.
"In a sense, we have taken what you've done in Iowa and made it global," he said.
Walters said he understood the angst but added that states also need to do their part.
"Look, if these are really front-line and vital priorities, then leaders at all levels of government need to put first things first," he said.
On Tuesday afternoon, a measure proposed by Democrats that would have offered up $1.1 million in state money to offset some previous federal cuts to Iowa's drug task forces failed in a party-line vote in the Iowa House.