Public safety isn’t spared in Pawlenty’s supplemental budget


The Governor says his FY 2010-11 Supplemental Budget maintains priority areas including core public safety.

That assertion is open for debate, and comes down to the definition of “core public safety.” The administration is defining it narrowly to include the Minnesota State Patrol, Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and state costs directly related to incarceration. That definition leaves out cuts to the state’s court system, public defenders and state aid that helps cities pay for police and fire services.

Similar to his 2009 budget, the Governor deserves credit for preserving funding for the Office of Justice Assistance, which supports victims of crime and domestic abuse. The courts and State Board of Public Defense were not so lucky. The public safety budget savings also depends heavily on one-time measures.

Court cuts

Similar to most state agencies, the courts received across-the-board 3 percent cuts for the rest of FY 2010 and all of FY 2011. That translated to a $14.7 million cut. A Minnesota Judicial Branch statement said the constitutionally guaranteed right to speedy, public trial is at serious risk. The cuts would mean:

  • Backlogs and delays will grow. Nearly 25 percent of serious felony cases take longer than one year to dispose. Delays in scheduling hearings and trials have more than doubled in many locations.

  • More drug courts will have to close.

  • Nearly 100 positions will be lost.

The budget proposal cuts the Minnesota Board of Public Defense $3.3 million in the current biennium. The Board provides attorneys to people accused of crimes who cannot afford representation. Public defenders handle approximately 60 percent of all misdemeanor cases and between 85 and 90 percent of all felonies, gross misdemeanor and juvenile cases. The proposed cuts raise serious questions about equal access to justice.

Facing deficits in 2008, the Board cut 53 public defenders, or approximately 12 percent of its total, according to a 2009 article in Minnesota Bench & Bar. To preserve core services, the Board cut all non-mandated work. It stopped representing parents in child-protection cases and clients in post-adjudication problem-solving courts, such as drug courts. A February 2010 Minnesota Legislative Auditor report said:

“Public defender workloads are too high, resulting in public defenders spending limited time with clients, difficulties preparing cases, and scheduling problems that hinder the efficient operation of criminal courts.”

Popular Sentence to Serve program eliminated

The Supplemental Budget also cuts the Department of Corrections $9.5 million, or roughly 1 percent of its general fund money. The largest single cut ($4.6 million) eliminates the Sentence to Serve program, an alternative sentence where offenders work on community betterment projects, such as litter clean-up or trail maintenance.

The state and counties split costs for Sentence to Serve 50/50. The state runs some programs, counties run others. Corrections administrators say Sentence to Serve is one of their most successful collaborations, but their budget goal was to preserve services to highest-risk offenders and Sentence to Serve is for low-risk offenders. If cash-strapped counties can’t continue the program, it means more low-risk offenders spending time in jail, the elimination of 87 crew leader jobs, and more beautification work that won’t get done.

The Supplemental Budget also reduces funding for prisoner reentry programs and the Department of Correction’s operating budget.

One-Time Money

The Supplemental Budget has $17.8 million in savings in the public safety area. Most of that money, $12 million, comes from one-time transfers from dedicated funds.

The largest chunk of new revenue ($9.9 million) comes from the surplus in the Fire Safety Account. The state collects a .65 percent surcharge on homeowner and commercial insurance policies. The money supports the State Fire Marshall and fire safety training.  (The proposal has caused a backlash among fire fighters, according to the Star Tribune.)

The budget proposal also takes $1.6 million in one-time money from MinnCorr, the state’s prison industries program. MinnCorr is self-sufficient. It gets no state subsidies, taxpayer dollars or grants. The money it makes gets reinvested in new equipment, training or reentry efforts. The Supplemental Budget also taps $600,000 in one-time money from several Department of Corrections dedicated funds.

New spending

The Supplemental Budget has a few requests for new money. It includes $1.6 million to match federal aid for the 2009 Red River floods. The Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) gets $200,000 in new funds to comply with federal predatory offender registry requirements.

Cuts to local governments likely to hit public safety

The budget does not cut Public Safety or the BCA. But some public safety cuts don’t show up on the public safety budget line.

The Supplemental Budget cuts $250 million in this biennium in aids to local governments. Cities spend more general fund money on public safety than any other category (40 percent, not counting bonding and debt). The Governor’s proposal comes on top of the $300 million 2009 unallotment of city and county aid. City officials say they already have cut down to core services.

The Minnesota State Auditor recently released a report saying city expenses over the past 10 years (1999-2008) have grown slower than inflation. Those numbers don’t take into account the state aid cuts in 2009 and those proposed by the Governor. Jim Miller, executive director of the Minnesota League of Cities, said it’s reasonable to assume that more public safety cuts would come if the state further reduces local government aid.