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Omnibus bill gets committee OK

Published (3/25/2011)
By Mike Cook
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Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey testifies before the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee March 22 during discussion of the omnibus public safety finance bill. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)A funding reduction to the Department of Human Rights, changes to a retirement plan and where offenders serve the end of their sentence are all part of a

$1.2 billion omnibus public safety finance bill. It is about $55 million below the governor’s recommendation.

Sponsored by Rep. Tony Cornish

(R-Good Thunder), HF853 was approved March 23 by the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee and sent to the House Ways and Means Committee. A companion, SF958, sponsored by Sen. Warren Limmer (R-Maple Grove), awaits action by the Senate Finance Committee.

“We did the best we could with what we had to work with,” Cornish said. “It’ll be argued from here to the Ways and Means to the floor to the conference committee to the governor, and I have no doubt these numbers and language will change this way, that way and every way. The target will probably change.”

The committee needed to trim

$58 million in General Fund spending. Among the largest cuts are $15.9 million from the Department of Corrections and $12 million to the Office of Justice Programs.

Within the latter cuts, funding to battered women’s programs can be reduced by no more than 11 percent of base funding.

However, the biggest controversy may be the $4.34 million cut (65 percent) to the Department of Human Rights. Further, it states that state dollars must be dedicated for enforcement of violations and nonstate funds may be used for education and outreach.

Even the number of enforcements could decrease. It would limit the number of businesses that need to be annually certified as compliant by increasing the threshold that requires a certificate from 40 to 50 employees, increasing the contract amount from $100,000 to $250,000, and extending the renewal period from two to five years.

“To sit and accept testimony from the acting commissioner of human rights, saying we’re at a tipping point of being effective in dealing with discrimination, and then to gut the department by 65 percent clearly sends the signal to people in Minnesota that human rights and discrimination cases aren’t important to the state,” said Rep. Kerry Gauthier (DFL-Duluth).

The bill also transfers $8.5 million from the Fire Safety Account to the General Fund.

The money, collected through a surcharge on homeowner and commercial fire insurance policies, is used for the Minnesota Board of Firefighter Training and Education, staffing and operations of the State Fire Marshal Division and fire-related regional response teams and other fire service programs that have the potential for statewide impact.

In recent years, some of the account balance has been used by legislators to help fund the state’s deficit. In fiscal year 2010, $6.9 million was transferred to the General Fund and $3.6 million in fiscal year 2011.

Also sparking controversy is a provision that would remove various non-security positions from the correctional employees retirement plan. Opponents said that many of these people who would be affected work closely with inmates on a regular basis, such as mental health professionals and nursing staff.

Among the policy initiatives that relate to appropriations in the bill are:

• the prison inmate co-pay for a visit to a health care provider would increase to at least $5;

• offenders with 60 days or less remaining on their sentence would serve that time in a county jail or workhouse, rather than state prison;

• provides minimum and maximum sentences for persons proven to be predatory sex offenders;

• a task force would be established to look at issues related to juvenile justice reform; and

• establishes a sex offender policy task force to evaluate the state’s sex offender policies and programs.

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