Given the tenor of the times at the Capitol these days, it was somewhat of a surprise when the two legislators carrying the omnibus public safety bill reported this week that they had “a great meeting with the governor” on the measure’s spending and priorities.
Likewise, even with all the talk of budget cutting to fix the state’s deficit, it was surprising, too, when Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, reported a final 2010-11 package of $1.8 billion — nearly 3 percent less for courts, cops and corrections than in the current biennium.
Did anyone think it would come down to cutting public safety?
“No, no, no,” Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said Thursday night. “It’s just counterintuitive that as we might see crime rising, that we would spend less on public safety.”
Still, the current condition of the bill restores some things that were left out of the Senate version passed last month. That measure would have cut as much as 7 percent from the budget.
“It’s crazy, but I was looking at graphs of past public safety budgets in the [legislative commission] meeting Wednesday,” Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, said Thursday night, “and going back to 1982, it did not seem to show many graphs going down. So this is rare.”
Actually, Republicans enacted major cuts to public safety in 2003, but it doesn’t happen very often. According to House fiscal analyst Gary Karger, “reductions” to public safety happened only one other time in the 15 years he’s been there.
Cops vs. corrections
Of course, not all was warm and fuzzy at Wednesday’s Legislative Commission on Planning and Fiscal Policy. A little food fight broke out over whether the bill should be funding more for courts — which many DFLers support — or cops and corrections.
The bill essentially breaks down into those two parts. The governor — and presumably his Republican colleagues — wants to move some money away from the courts. Pawlenty recently indicated that he believes courts overfunded, and the Department of Corrections and law enforcement agencies underfunded.
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher grilled a staffer from the Minnesota Management and Budget office, trying to account for some $15 million that Pawlenty would like to see restored, almost all of it on the corrections and law enforcement side. As it stands, the corrections department gets about $930 million, while the District Courts budget, by contrast, sits at about $455 million. (The federal stimulus package injects about $38 million in funding.)
DFLers were saying that they were merely asking for a half percent of belt-tightening from the corrections department.
So, it’s a philosophical argument that breaks down largely along party lines, with many DFLers, including Senate Majority Assistant Leader Tarryl Clark, who warned that underfunding courts could lead to letting criminals back on the street. But it has Republicans, on the other side, worrying about dwindling police departments and dishing law-and-order rhetoric, a bread-and-butter issue of the GOP.
(The bill does have some language in it about striking mandatory minimum sentencing on some minor controlled-substance convictions, a move that Higgins said Thursday is about giving “judges discretion” but also about saving money. “There should be court savings there.”)
But even Republicans like Senjem and Emmer concede that Pawlenty may be wrong on reducing courts funding.
“That would seem to be the grand debate,” Senjem said. “The governor is stronger on corrections, and I’m not sure. We all recognize that the courts are backlogged. It has to be a matter of balance.”
Emmer, who is a lawyer, has similar misgivings about Pawlenty’s stance. “Courts have been cut to the bone,” Emmer said. “I’m in these courthouses all the time, and it’s become increasingly difficult over the years. I’m assuming [Pawlenty] knows some things I don’t, because he’s a smart guy and doesn’t make decisions off the cuff. But I’d rather err on the side of the courts.”
Will it get signed?
All that aside, what really matters is whether the bill is in the kind of shape where it might actually get signed by the governor.
Higgins, for her part, said Thursday, “We’re really very close on things” with Pawlenty.
“Frankly, we need to hit the right target,” Higgins said. “I’m kinda pragmatic at this point.”
The bill did close out of conference committee Thursday night, though it’s unclear when it will go to the House and Senate floors, and when it might arrive on Pawlenty’s desk.
Emmer, for one, is not optimistic it will be any time soon. “There are too many bills being backed up, and it’s all become a political ploy by [DFL leadership] to put it all off until the last minute,” Emmer said, theorizing that the end of the session will see bills rolled into each other, forcing Pawlenty to sign bills he may not want to. “There’s a much larger thing at play here.”
It’s a notion that Paymar, the public safety finance chair on the House side, doesn’t necessarily dispute. “I have no clue when we might see it in the House, I just do my own little world,” Paymar said this morning. “I don’t really know what the game plan is.”
As for the bill itself, Paymar said that despite some back-and-forth over the Department of Corrections with the governor, “I think he’ll sign it. I don’t see why he wouldn’t. It adequately funds the courts, and it was strategic in that we didn’t endanger public safety.”
Still, Paymar notes that the corrections department is not happy, even though in his eyes, there was a reduction of one half of 1 percent to that nearly $1 billion budget, something that should be manageable.
“We cut $60 million … but we just didn’t do it across the board, we were strategic,” Paymar concluded. “I feel good about it.”
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.