ST. PAUL — The head of the Minnesota Department of Human Services on Monday, Aug. 31, said the agency had begun making cuts to direct care and treatment programs that support vulnerable Minnesotans and sex offenders to close a budget hole.

The department had cut down a projected shortfall by $20 million by preparing for layoffs and eliminating open positions, Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said, but a $7 million gap between revenues and expenses still remains there. And bigger cuts could be on the horizon as the state faces a $4.7 billion gap in the next two-year budget, Harpstead told a legislative panel.

The coronavirus pandemic quickly turned upside down the state's financial outlook, converting a previously projected $1.5 billion budget surplus to a $4.7 billion hole. Lower than expected revenue and higher than anticipated spending fueled the disparity.

The Minnesota House of Representatives during a special legislative session this summer passed a supplemental spending plan that would've provided more funding for the programs, but the Senate didn't take it up, citing concerns about bigger budget issues on the horizon.

"It's no secret that the entire state budget is heading into deficit," Rep. Tina Liebling, D-Rochester, said. "There are some difficult choices ahead so this is an opportunity to have a window into those choices."

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Hearkening back to 2015 and 2016 cuts that led to staffing shortages, increased seclusion and restraint procedures and violent interactions between residents and staff, Harpstead said she would try to avoid similar cuts to staffing.

Harpstead said the department hoped to transfer some services to private community providers, allowing the state to focus on the services that private groups won't want to take on. And it would make one-time cuts in hiring, training and administrative spending and leave 44 open positions at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter unfilled.

The Minnesota Sex Offender Program would be discontinued in the Moose Lake correctional facility, Harpstead said, eliminating 15 positions. Harpstead said officials tried to maintain as many programs, service sites and jobs as possible while determining where cuts could be made.

"No one comes to the Department of Human Services to close vital services and lay off their colleagues," Harpstead said. "It's been a really tough couple weeks wrestling through this thing as we have."

State employees and union representatives urged the department to consider the impact staffing cuts at facilities around the state that work with those with mental illness, disabilities and substance abuse issues as well as sex offenders.

"It is irresponsible on the part of the Legislature to not fund safe staffing and it is irresponsible fixing a budget deficit by cuts focused on frontline staff," said Eric Hesse, a security counselor lead in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter "Under-investing in our work is dangerous and the consequences severe."

Republicans on the panel said the governor could have a key role in bringing additional funding to the department and its services by lifting restrictions on businesses aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19.

"It's absolutely essential that we start to collect sales tax, revenue, income tax revenue so that we actually have the dollars needed to fund these much-needed services," Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, said. "The longer the state remains closed, the worse this is going to get."

Liebling said the pandemic drove economic hardship, not the governor's policies aimed at quelling the virus.