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Funding differences, concerns aplenty as public safety conferees begin their work

By Mike Cook
Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Lori Skjerven Gildea is the first sitting chief judge to testify before a conference committee as she speaks at the Judiciary and Public Safety Conference Committee April 20 to urge the members to fully fund the judiciary’s budget request. Photo by Paul Battaglia

When combined, the House and Senate proposed increases in public safety and judiciary funding for the 2018-19 biennium are nearly $92 million below that requested by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Bridging these differences is the goal of the Judiciary and Public Safety Conference Committee, which began its work Thursday with an overview of monetary differences.

Rep. Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center) and Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove) sponsor HF896/ SF803*, the respective omnibus bills.

The House plan calls for nearly $2.28 billion in spending during the 2018-19 biennium, a $111.5 million increase over current base. The $2.22 billion Senate proposal contains just under $59 million in new spending. A plan proffered by Dayton calls for a $262.2 million increase over forecast base.


Dollar differences

Dayton included a 3.5 percent annual inflationary salary increase for judicial and executive branch agencies; the House 1 percent, and the Senate no increase. Each would cover employee health insurance cost increases.

Pension fund changes are included in the governor’s request. Cornish previously said House leadership indicated such changes would be funded in the omnibus pension bill. They are not in the Senate bill, either.

General Fund changes in the bills include:

  • $14 million in the House plan, $12 million in the governor’s plan and $700,000 in the Senate plan for peace officer training assistance;
  • $9.2 million in Fiscal Year 2017 to cover a deficiency — current funding is to be depleted in April 2017 — in the base budget for the Corrections Department health care contract is in all three bills;
  • $4.78 million in the governor’s plan to fund 38 full-time equivalent public defenders, something not funded by the House or Senate;
  • $4.18 million for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to build a predatory offender registration system to replace the current aging one is in the House and governor proposals, the Senate would provide $1.87 million;
  • $3.15 million is in the governor’s plan to expand mental health services for prisoners; the House funds half that amount and the Senate zero;
  • $1.7 million for two new District Court units, which includes a judge, court reporter and law clerk is in all three plans;
  • $500,000 to combat terrorism recruitment is in the House bill, but neither of the others;
  • $479,000 in the House proposal to combat sex trafficking, whereas the governor and Senate have zero;
  • $300,000 is in each bill to add an additional scientist to the BCA’s drug chemistry lab to reduce the current processing time of 75-80 days, which is more than double that deemed acceptable by judges and prosecutors; and
  • $150,000 is in the House and Senate bills to create a nonprofit security grant program to supplement current federal dollars to nonprofit organizations deemed to be at high risk of a terrorist attack. The governor does not fund this.

The House bill calls for $200,000 for officer de-escalation training funded from the peace officer training account. It would be fundedthrough a surcharge on certain criminal and traffic offenses. Neither the Senate nor governor have this included.

The House and Senate each seek $2.8 million from the fire safety account — funded through a surcharge on all homeowner and commercial fire insurance policies — for increased firefighter training and education, funding Minnesota Task Force 1 and the state’s air rescue team. The governor does not include this.


Policy included

The Senate bill is policy-free, whereas the House has plenty that is scheduled to be discussed at Friday’s 10 a.m. meeting. Cornish said no public testimony will be taken.

That includes language that would toughen the penalty for protestors who block a freeway or airport from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor. It would also require the Corrections Department to use a 1,600-bed prison in Appleton when the department determines it has an insufficient number of prison beds to house the current or projected prison population, prohibit the use of stays of adjudication and imposition in criminal sexual conduct cases, and increase penalties for child pornography offenses and establish mandatory minimums.


Concerns raised

In an April 10 letter, Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy called several things in each bill “troublesome.”

In particular, he noted that neither body comes close to the governor’s recommendation of a $47.6 million increase for employee compensation. The House calls for $16 million and the Senate $6.81 million.

Rep. Tony Cornish, left, chair of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee, and Sen. Warren Limmer, chair of the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Finance and Policy Committee, confer during the first meeting of the Judiciary and Public Safety Conference Committee April 20. Photo by Paul Battaglia

“DOC employees play a critical role in improving public safety for Minnesotans and they need to be paid according to their contracts,” Roy wrote. Without the funding, staff layoffs are likely.

Roy also took aim at the Appleton prison proposal, noting a pair of provisions the department has put forth —including 75 new Challenge Incarceration Program beds and remodeling a vacant building at the Lino Lakes facility — are better investments.

“Using current prison locations for small additions is a much more cost effective approach than purchasing a large abandoned property,” he wrote.

Public Safety Commissioner Mona Dohman also hasmyriad concerns.

In an April 7 letter, she expressed concern over key provisions that are omitted entirely or funded below the governor’s request. Among those are an increase in firearms evidence staffing and homicide and narcotics investigators at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, replenishing the state’s disaster contingency account, ongoing system maintenance and support of the new criminal history system and overall department funding to keep pace with rising operational costs.

“Without full funding, the result will likely include longer wait time for services, delays in projects, delays in inspections, and increased turnaround times,” she wrote.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Lorie Skjerven Gildea spoke to conferees, an appearance she was told is the first time a chief judge has appeared before a conference committee.

“When everything else breaks down, the courts are where people come for justice,” she said, noting that not fully funding the judiciary request would threaten the ability for cases to be processed in a timely manner.

“Justice system funding … has long been a bipartisan priority,” Skjerven Gildea said. “It needs to be this session as well.”

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