No higher priority. That's what Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee: "This is a priority for our office and for the state," he said. "There is no higher priority than protecting our kids."
Kane was speaking in support of a bill to establish an Internet Crimes Against Children unit within the attorney general's office.
The unit would investigate people who sell kids for sex, those who use online chat rooms to entice children into sexual situations and who create, trade or possess child pornography.
A similar task force, funded by a $200,000 annual federal grant, has operated from the office the past five years.
Headed by former Moscow police officer Jim Kouril, it has two full-time investigators, a couple of part-timers and a small budget to provide equipment and training for local law enforcement agencies throughout the state.
Now the group wants $2 million in state funding to add 11 more investigators, a couple of forensic computer technicians and a deputy attorney general to handle the increased prosecutions.
Kouril said the task force, which has a 95 percent felony conviction rate, currently has leads on about 5,000 Idahoans who are allegedly trading child porn. Based on prior cases, he estimates 70 percent to 80 percent of them are also hands-on offenders, meaning they're actively molesting children.
"When you catch one of these people, odds are you're going to save a child," he said. "Right now we average about two search warrants a month and two arrests. We're falling behind."
The good news is that lawmakers are all over this. Legislation authorizing the permanent unit was unanimously approved in the Senate. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was leading the charge to find the necessary funding, with active support from a number of colleagues in the House and Senate.
Bedke wants to pull $2 million from a consumer protection account that accumulates settlement money awarded to the attorney general's office each year. That way it won't compete for general fund dollars, which are needed for public schools, prisons and other government operations; the unit would transition onto the general fund in fiscal 2015.
"I understand how the budget process works," Bedke said. "This gets the unit started without messing up anyone's plans, and gets it to its rightful place down the road."
"This is a case where we aren't going to let budget constraints get in the way of good policy," said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert.
And maybe that's where this story should end - on a high note, with everyone pulling together to do what's right.
But then there's that phrase: No higher priority.
It sounds right, doesn't it? Sounds like something people should expect from their government.
So if protecting kids really is our highest priority, why are lawmakers having to search for funding? Why does the Internet crimes unit have to worry about "messing up" other plans, instead of moving straight to the front of the line?
Longtime budget committee co-chairwoman Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said it's tough paying for new programs when current needs aren't being met.
"The general fund is so tight," she said. "We're still $130 million less in K-12 funding than we were in 2009. We have deferred maintenance and other needs, so when a new program comes to us, we bow our necks. We trim and trim; that doesn't necessarily make government smaller so much as make it more difficult."
Yet the people Kouril's team is going after are the type of predators who make you hope there's a hell, so they can burn forever.
They destroy young lives, they brag about their exploits, they write manuals on how to have sex with children - and post them online.
With that in mind, it's impossible not to compare the backdoor approach being used to fund this unit with the front door bulldozer that is business personal property tax relief.
Gov. Butch Otter ponied up $20 million for tax relief at the start of the session.
That's all general fund money. So is the $10.4 million for the governor's Hire One More job creation tax credit, the $140,000 sales tax credit proposed for Girl Scout cookies, a $10,000 tax credit for pregnancy clinics, another $10,000 for beer and wine tastings, a $15,000 credit for homeless shelters and a $10 million giveaway for private school scholarships. There is also the $35 million tax cut approved last year.
No higher priority? Decide for yourself.
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