King County Sheriff’s Email to KCSO Employees Claims She Wasn’t Consulted About Shifting Marijuana Tax Revenue

by Carolyn Bick

In an internal email sent to King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) employees last week, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said that King County Executive Dow Constantine did not speak with her about his proposal to shift $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue from the sheriff’s department to community-based programs.

In the email, sent shortly after King County Executive Dow Constantine announced his budget proposals for the 2021–2022 fiscal year on Sept. 16, Johanknecht says that this revenue shift proposal is not a “foregone conclusion,” but also characterizes the amount of money in terms of how many deputies $4.6 million would pay for — about 30, to be exact.

“Since Executive Constantine did not speak with me about his plan I am trying to determine if this $4.6 million reduction to our revenue budget would force cuts to service in unincorporated King County,” Johanknecht’s email reads, before encouraging KCSO employees to “stay positive,” while she learns “what this means, if anything” to the budget announcements I have already shared with you.”

In his budget proposal announcement, Constantine said that the $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue would instead go towards funding programs meant to assist those who have been most impacted by the war on drugs, which started in earnest in the 1970s under President Richard Nixon and which President Ronald Reagan expanded and amplified. As a result of these initial and expanded policies, many People of Color, particularly Black people, found themselves facing long — sometimes lifetime — sentences in prison for possessing even small amounts of drugs. As the Center for American Progress report linked above also notes, the effort has had “a negligible effect” on public safety or substance misuse rates and has cost the United States $1 trillion since 1971.

The KCSO began receiving the marijuana tax revenue in 2016. Constantine’s proposed budget would use $2.8 million of the $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue for “a program to help individuals vacate convictions of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer illegal, and settle unpaid court fines, fees, and restitution that could lead to incarceration.” Another $1.35 million would go towards the Department of Local Services for “programs co-created with residents in the unincorporated area, including youth marijuana prevention and employment programs.” The rest — $450,000 — would be used to create “a community-centered advisory body that would determine how to spend marijuana taxes in future years.”

In a brief statement emailed to the Emerald, King County Executive’s Office Director of Communications, Alex Fryer, said that “[t]he COVID recession, along with the need to fundamentally transform our criminal legal system, created necessary budget reductions for the King County Sheriff’s office. They were consulted on both fronts prior to [Sept. 16’s] announcement. Suggesting anything else is inaccurate.”

However, he did not respond specifically to whether Constantine discussed this particular proposal to shift this source of funding from the KCSO to community programs, nor did he respond to the Emerald’s follow-up questions via email or phone call.

But regardless of whether Constantine consulted with Johanknecht on this specific funding shift, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski (District 1) said that the sheriff’s email to KCSO employees missed the point. Not only does the funding shift not necessarily mean that the KCSO will lose $4.6 million in funding — which Johanknecht’s email fails to directly note — marijuana tax revenue shouldn’t be funding law enforcement, in the first place.

To begin with, though Johanknecht’s email says that Constantine’s budget announcement is “just the first step in the biennial budget process where the Executive provides a budget to the King County Council who final (sic) budgetary decisions,” it does not state directly that this revenue could end up coming from elsewhere, if the King County Council (KCC) so chooses. Dembowski also said that $4.6 million is a tiny bite of a much larger budget.

“There’s $400 million-plus in total revenue from the budget sources and the [KCC] could say, ‘Well, we’re going to add it from the General Fund, or another revenue source,’” Dembowski said, but also added that there aren’t “unlimited sources” for funding and that the KCC would have to prioritize funding.

Constantine’s proposed operating budget for the KCSO is a little more than $406 million, which represents about an $8 million decrease from last year, according to Constantine’s proposed 2021–2022 Biennial Budget book. Funding sources for the KCSO include grants, contracts with cities, and a subsidy from King County’s General Fund.

Despite the theoretical scenario in which the KCC comes up with another $4.6-million source to replace the marijuana tax revenue shifted from the KCSO to community-based programs, Dembowski believes the KCSO should be restructured. He also specifically does not believe money collected from marijuana tax revenue should be funding law enforcement.

“We should be giving that to public health and human services programs, and economic development programs, particularly for Black and Brown communities that have suffered the most from this decades-long, failed war on drugs,” Dembowski said. “It’s ironic — and, in my mind, inappropriate — that we would tax the legalization of marijuana and send it into law enforcement to continue, still in a large degree, the failed war on drugs, which disproportionately affects Black and Brown people.” 

Johanknecht will have the chance to present the KCSO’s concerns to the KCC at the council’s meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 30, but there won’t be any immediate budgetary decisions made, Dembowski said. The budgetary process is a long one, and the KCC won’t adopt a budget until at least mid-November, he said.

Johanknecht did not respond to the Emerald’s emailed request for comment.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here and here.

Featured image of King County Executive Dow Constantine from the Emerald archive.

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