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Minnesota Legislature

At Issue: Courts and corrections backing

Published (5/15/2009)
By Mike Cook
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Co-chairs Rep. Michael Paymar and Sen. Linda Higgins listen to testimony May 1 during a meeting of the omnibus public safety finance conference committee. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)Conferees’ final judgment on the omnibus public safety finance bill was to reduce funding for many areas and allow fee increases for some court activity.

Now it’s time for Gov. Tim Pawlenty to render his verdict.

“We had to make over $61 million in cuts. We tried to be very strategic in our approach, and I think we accomplished that goal while preserving public safety,” said Rep. Michael Paymar (DFL-St. Paul). “We also have significant and extensive reforms that we are recommending to the Department of Corrections, as well as the Department of Public Safety and the courts.” The conference committee removed many provisions Pawlenty found objectionable.

Sponsored by Paymar and Sen. Linda Higgins (DFL-Mpls), HF1657/SF802* was passed 85-45 by the House May 12, one day after the Senate did the same 36-30.

“It’s not a perfect bill, but it’s, I think, one we can go forward with in the state,” Higgins said.

Coming in at $2.02 billion, including $1.81 billion from the General Fund, the bill cuts a wide swath of areas including courts, human rights, victim services and public safety.

However, Paymar said the Corrections Department would get a base bump.

“We did not fund the department to the level that the governor had recommended. We actually increased base funding to the Department of Corrections by $3.6 million. I don’t know of any other department or agency in the state of Minnesota that got increases,” Paymar said.

The governor’s proposal includes a more than $20 million deficiency request that conferees believe should have been in the annual budget deficiency request put forth earlier this session by the governor.

To help with department efficiencies, the bill calls for a 1 percent per diem decrease, or 89 cents per day per prisoner.

“We offered them a whole list of suggestions that we think the department can implement to reduce their costs, but we also said they cannot, in this process, lay off correctional officers or reduce treatment beds,” Paymar said.

A Corrections Strategic Management and Operations Advisory Task Force is established to look at ways the department can improve efficiencies. One efficiency in the bill is a 20 percent reduction in the department’s car fleet — more than 750 now — by Jan. 1, 2010.

The bill calls for the elimination of the short-term offender program that allows offenders with less than six months remaining on their sentence to serve that time in a local jail. This would take effect with those sentenced on or after July 1, 2009. Pawlenty included this in his budget proposal. “It’ll be a savings to the counties,” Paymar said.

Courts

All courts face a biennial funding decrease, but some of that is to be offset by $41.6 million in fee increases.

“We cut the courts by only 0.85 percent,” Paymar said. “I don’t believe we’ll have to have any layoffs of public defenders. I have not heard any criticism from the courts about this bill. I think we met their expectations, and exceeded them in many respects.”

Some Republicans, including House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) and Rep. Paul Kohls (R-Victoria), wondered how the fee total came about when the House proposal was $28 million and the Senate’s $34 million.

“You don’t come back with compromises that are bigger than either of the first two bargaining positions,” Seifert said. “Of course the court system wants it because the courts get the money.”

Paymar countered that when the Republicans were in charge in 2003, Pawlenty signed $98 million in public safety fees into law.

He said court representatives said they “could live with” the fees, and that the Minnesota Bar Association did not express opposition. “While nobody likes to raise fees, we felt like in these economic times that this was the right thing to do.”

Other court provisions include an increase of the attorney registration fee to $75 to help fund public defenders, the public defender co-pay is increased from $28 to $75 (can be waived by the court), referees can serve as judges of conciliation court in all judicial districts, a transfer of money from local drug abuse prevention programs to juvenile drug court programs and an annual 10 percent interest rate must be put on a judgment or an award over $50,000.

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) noted it is often beneficial for the defendant to hold their money in an account earning greater interest instead of paying their debt. “We believe through this measure that we will reduce some of the delays that defendants currently use in paying the judgment,” Paymar said.

Other bill provisions

• ensures that victim’s services programs administered by the Office of Justice Programs must not be reduced by more than 3 percent from current biennium funding;

• counties could develop a revocation center pilot project that could house offenders facing probation revocation, rather than sending them to prison;

• places a 90-day incarceration cap on a first-time supervised release violator following a revocation of supervised release; and

• by Jan. 1, 2010, the Public Safety Department is to reduce its non-investigative car fleet by at least 5 percent. This excludes the state patrol.

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