Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sex offenders & the bonding bill

The legislature just passed and sent to the Governor a new version of the capital investment bill, or "bonding bill." Like our first bonding bill (see last entry), it is just under $1 billion while the Governor's original request was $725 million. The Governor made line-item vetoes this week to reduce the bill to $680 million.

The difference between this bill and the first is that we have included funding for a proposed Moose Lake treatment facility for sex offenders and we took out a bunch of projects in order to include it.

Sex Offenders

The debate over the bonding bill centered heavily on the Moose Lake facility, and that has caused many people to ask not only about the merits of the $89 million proposal but about the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) in general.

When a sex offender is sentenced for his crime, he serves the sentence in a Minnesota Correctional Facility (MCF), which is a prison administered by the Department of Corrections. About 15 years ago, policy makers decided that the state should not be releasing certain sex offenders back into society after the offenders completed their sentences. That led to the creation of the MSOP, which is run by the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS). MSOP facilities are not prisons, but rather treatment facilities. The Moose Lake facility would therefore be a treatment facility and not a prison. In order to be placed at a MSOP treatment facility, a sex offender must receive a "civil commitment" from a judge. After the Dru Sjodin murder several years ago, the number of civil commitments has skyrocketed. There are more than 500 people in the program currently.

Some analysts believe that the constitutional basis for the MN Sex Offender Program (MSOP) is on thin ice because there hasn't been an offender released from the program since its inception. The result has been an exploding growth in the MSOP population, leading to the request for the Moose Lake facility. There is a concern that someone could bring a lawsuit against the state challenging the constitutionality of the program because offenders aren't being successfully treated, and if the decision went against the state, the MSOP patients would be released. Politics in Minnesota carried a good article about the issue.

The Governor proposed legislation, which we are considering seriously in the Legislature, to double the criminal sentences of sex offenders. It would cost $12 million a year but keeping someone in prison is considerably cheaper than in a sex offender facility.

Objective Criteria on the Bonding Bill

One of the problems I've always had about the bonding bill is that is often one of the most political documents considered by the Legislature. Every even-numbered year the Governor's office makes recommendations for capital investment (and a smaller "emergency" bonding bill every other year) based on suggestions by state agencies as well as other public entities like cities, counties, colleges, universities, etc. Some projects get recommended or don't get recommended based on more subjective than objective criteria. For example, the current Legislature approves fewer projects in GOP districts, and the Governor vetoes more projects in DFL districts. There should be a better way.

My bill, HF2182, would require that the Department of Finance (now called MN Management & Budget) give the Legislature some more detailed information about projects like jobs created, wages paid, how a building project will bring a building up to code, etc. so that we can better compare projects. The public and the media would then be able to bring some pressure to bear on the Governor and the Legislature to select projects based on merit.

I got a bill hearing in the Capital Investment Committee last week and presented the idea along with two Republicans who had similar bills. The reaction was not so positive from both the executive branch and at least one DFLer on the committee. See an article that sums up the bill here. I'll keep trying!

How Much Debt Does the State Ring Up?

A few constituents have asked how much debt the state incurs on the bonding bill. My previous entry has a lot of info about our relative debt levels, but I came across this info from MN Management & Budget here. You can see that the percentage of our budget that goes toward debt services is considerably low and consistent using a variety of measures.