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Funding shifts to more ‘core’ services

Published (3/25/2011)
By Hank Long
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The House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee approved HF440 March 24.

Sponsored by Committee Chairman Steve Smith (R-Mound), it targets how $726 million would be spent on the state’s judicial system and support services for the 2012-2013 biennium.

The omnibus judiciary finance bill has no Senate companion. It was referred to the House Ways and Means Committee.

DFL members expressed concern that the budget, reduced from $735 million in the previous biennium, would put an increased burden on a court system that has reason to see adequate funding.

Smith defended the appropriations, which he said continue to fund core and essential services of government’s “third branch.”

“With all due respect to some of my colleagues, the projected baseline represents the priorities of the previous Legislature to which we are not compelled to follow,” Smith said.

Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul) said the appropriations, which would reduce funding for public defenders and the state’s Guardian Ad Litem program, are based in unprecedented partisanship and represent a case of the “fiscal tail wagging this dog.”

“Mr. Chair, I know you feel like you have done your best with what you have been given,” Lesch said. “I think you should have been given more. And I think it’s up to the members of your caucus to find a way to give you more.”

The bill shifts the balance of funding to increase core services, but at a cost to other areas. It increases funds by $6.7 million for the Supreme Court, Court of Appeals and district courts, while reducing funding for Civil Legal Services by $4 million over the next two years. It also cuts about $785,000 from the state Guardian Ad Litem program.

The program’s leadership said the cuts will slow the “wheels of justice” for the most vulnerable children caught often caught up in court battles not of their own choosing.

“The Guardian Ad Litem is often the only voice of calm, objectivity and reason and are focused on what is truly in the best interest of the child at that moment in the courtroom,” said Leslie Metzen, chair for the Guardian Ad Litem Board.

Committee Vice Chairman Ron Shimanski (R-Silver Lake) said that reductions in some areas in funding were necessary to offset increased funding to the courts system.

“(The Guardian Ad Litem Program) will be given the resources they need to carry out their statutory mission to provide services to victims of abuse and neglect, but the courts will need to be responsible and judicious in their requesting appointments,” Shimanski said.

Also included in the bill is new language that protects juveniles involved in sex trafficking and prostitution crimes. Instead of prosecuting the juveniles for prostitution, minors would be protected under the definition of “sexually exploited youth.”

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