Ballpark or DNA?
Efforts in the legislature to pay for DNA marker processing ran into all the problems of governance (and politics)
As so often happens, city officials didn’t anticipate that they might have a public relations problem.
They expected a pleased response to the Feb. 26 groundbreaking for a downtown Reno baseball stadium, an important part of the city’s effort to recapture the successful Silver Sox baseball program Reno had in the 1950s and early ‘60s.
The problem was that many people in Reno were wrapped up in raising money through bake sales and car washes and corporate donations after Sheriff Mike Haley made a public appeal for $243,000 to reduce a backlog of 3,000 DNA samples that had not been processed. That backlog, Haley said, could hold the key to the Brianna Denison case.
The city chose that moment in human history to hold a dedication ceremony for a $50 million ballpark.
At newsrooms around the city, the phones lit up and the email messages started piling up.
“Why is there money for a ball park but not for law enforcement?” asked one to-the-point email message to the RN&R. KRNV anchor Joe Hart began one evening’s newscast by mentioning the calls. Local officials, he said, had explained that the legislature had earmarked a car rental tax solely for the ballpark, and the same funds could not be used for the DNA processing.
The tale of the DNA funding, however, is more involved than that, and if there is responsibility for the problem, there is plenty to go around—to legislators, to Gov. Jim Gibbons, and even to law enforcement itself. The local governments seem to be among the least culpable.
At the 2005 Nevada Legislature, Assemblymember Valerie Weber had introduced Assembly Bill 382, expanding the list of crimes for which offenders could be forced to provide genetic markers for testing. The measure was certain to have some financial impact on local governments and also on state government. It cleared the Assembly Judiciary Committee, but then went to the Assembly’s budget committee. The measure provided a cool million dollars each year for two years from the state general fund to police labs in Clark and Washoe counties—$650,000 for Clark, $350,000 for Washoe (the small counties are serviced by a state lab). The money, for whatever reasons, was not appropriated, and the bill died. Two years later, there were two new bills, Assembly bills 92 and 99, providing for taking the samples from all felons. A.B. 99 was Weber’s bill, and it provided for a new funding source instead of relying on the state general fund. Under her bill, a $1 “administrative assessment” would be charged in justice and district courts on all cases in which there was a finding of “guilty,” with the money going to genetic test processing.
But one thing had changed since Weber proposed her first bill in 2005. There was now a new governor, Jim Gibbons, who had run on a pledge of “no new taxes.” Early in the 2007 legislative session, the governor’s office made clear to legislators that this applied also to small fees and assessments.
Legislators counseled the law enforcement lobbyists that if the measure included the $1 guilty plea assessment, it would likely be vetoed. Last week, Assembly Judiciary Committee chair Bernie Anderson said, “OK, here’s the two choices, and you say to the sheriff and chief’s association, ‘Well, go over and visit the governor’s office and see if they’ll support this piece of legislation,’ and the answer is no.”
The law enforcement lobbyists then had to decide if they wanted a bill without funding that nevertheless gave them the authority to take DNA samples, and according to lawmakers, the lobbyists said they did. At the time of Sheriff Haley’s public appeal for money, he said the state had not provided funding, but legislators say it was law enforcement itself that consented to moneyless legislation, knowing that the funding would have to come—if at all—from their local governments.
So in the end, it was A.B. 92, which empowered police to take samples from all felons but provided no money, that was enacted.
There was one other legislative avenue. At the end of each legislature, there is always money distributed for one-shot spending bills. For whatever reason—because no one asked or because leaders who parcel out the money refused—the genetic marker program was not one of the beneficiaries.
Once the bill was passed, and the issue arrived back at the localities, it was then up to local governments to pay for the processing of DNA samples, if anyone was going to. (This was a problem only in the metro counties. The small counties use a state lab.) In some years, that would not have been a large problem. But the economy was sluggish, and the mortgage crisis was just getting underway (local governments are more dependent on property taxes than the state). From the end of the legislature to today, there has been a steady decline in local government revenues and Washoe County has been planning cuts, not hikes, in services. Some money was provided from forfeiture funds by the district attorney and Reno police, but it was not enough.
Anderson says he understands the frustration of law enforcement.
“The forensic laboratories and the police all want to have it [authority to take genetic samples] and then they get upset with their city or their county or their state for not funding it, because as far as they’re concerned it should be like the siren on the car. It’s another tool in their arsenal.”