Minnesota House passes contentious public safety bill
ST. PAUL A budget bill that would maintain funding for courts and public defenders but would cut spending for prisons, women's shelters and human-rights programs cleared the Minnesota House on Thursday. "I think we did a good job with what we had...
A budget bill that would maintain funding for courts and public defenders but would cut spending for prisons, women's shelters and human-rights programs cleared the Minnesota House on Thursday.
"I think we did a good job with what we had to work with," said the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder.
But during a three-hour debate, one Democratic-Farmer-Labor lawmaker after another disagreed, predicting the package would jeopardize public safety.
"This bill is an ugly stinky foot that we are trying to shoehorn into your budget targets," Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul, told Republicans.
The bill, approved 71-59, would keep funding for state courts near current levels while giving a slight boost to public defenders, who've been hit hard by budget cuts in recent years.
However, the Department of Corrections would take a 2.6 percent cut and battered women's shelters an 11 percent reduction, a level Cornish predicted they could handle.
"I am not going to short them more than I think they can stand," he said.
The Department of Human Rights, which investigates discrimination complaints, would get a 65 percent budget cut. Gov. Mark Dayton had recommended it get $6.7 million during the upcoming two-year budget period, but the House bill slashed that amount to $2.3 million.
"We're practically gutting the Department of Human Rights," said Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis.
Some sex offenders would receive longer sentences. Under the bill, a person convicted of a sex offense would undergo a second trial, where he or she could be classified as a predatory sex offender and face an "indeterminate" sentence that could stretch to 60 years.
Under the bill, people sentenced for felonies who had less than 60 days left to serve would spend that time in county jails or workhouses rather than a state prison.
"Nobody should be sending short-term offenders to the state prison," Cornish said.
Corrections Commissioner Tom Roy predicted the budget cuts, totaling almost $17 million, could lead to early release of prisoners or a prison closing.
But Cornish said that was a "scare tactic."
DFLers were especially critical of Republican decisions to take money from five dedicated accounts to bolster the general fund. For example, the bill would allow $2.6 million a year to be taken out of a special 911 fund, an action the Department of Public Safety said could hurt the state's ability to secure federal grants.
"This is not only illegal, but it's also unconstitutional," Mullery said.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.