Capitol Offenses

State legislators are poised for a spending spree--on stadiums and prisons

These maneuvers are all well conceived politically. The steering committee's solicitation of proposals from local governments both creates a bidding war and shifts the terms of the public discussion. As Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) notes, the format "is setting up this debate about where [stadiums] should be built, which distracts people from thinking about how they can be built--specifically where the money will come from." In addition, by expanding the stadium discussion to include the Vikings as well as the Twins, Pawlenty has made it more likely that funding only one ballpark will be viewed as a palatable compromise.

Pawlenty has continued to claim that stadium advocates shouldn't presume state assistance will be available to them. None of the ballpark boosters have taken him seriously. The only three proposals (out of 26 submitted) that met the steering committee's guidelines all include at least $100 million in state financing, and much more from regional and local government revenue sources. Explaining why he has shifted from steadfast opposition to a position of "leadership" on the stadium issue, the governor says sports franchises improve the "quality of life" and make the state more "competitive and appealing" for residents. That's tough to swallow coming from a man whose last budget specifically cut state funding for welfare mothers with disabled children.

The contrast between Pawlenty's 2004 largesse and his 2003 penury is not the only reason Pawlenty's stadium push feels audacious. The Vikings have an ironclad lease to play at the Metrodome through 2011, meaning that, even with the inevitable delays in stadium construction, state lawmakers can wait at least a couple more years before their inaction would run the risk of losing the franchise to another city. As for the threat of the Twins moving or being contracted, Twins owner Carl Pohlad and Major League Baseball have cried wolf so many times that no one listens anymore.

Meanwhile, the tide elsewhere is clearly turning against the public funding of baseball stadiums. In just the past month, angry legislators who ponied up hundreds of millions of dollars to construct Miller Stadium in Milwaukee are demanding a public audit of the Brewers franchise; in St. Louis, one of the nation's most avid and loyal baseball towns, a Cardinals ownership group long stymied in its quest for public moneys agreed to build a new ballpark with mostly private funds.

The DFL majority in the Senate is unlikely to act until Pawlenty gets a stadium bill passed by his Republican colleagues in the House. Some think that will only happen if the governor agrees to fund it with revenues from the expansion of gambling through a racino at Canterbury Park. The House passed racino legislation during the last session, claiming that it would generate $100 million for the state's coffers every two years. Pawlenty has explicitly stated that he is opposed to the racino option. But his desire for a stadium, or two, might be strong enough to change his mind. If so, it is sure to set off a heated debate over funding priorities. The cost of keeping violent sex offenders locked up is at the top of the list.

PRISONS: LAND OF 10,000 LIFE SENTENCES WITHOUT PAROLE

In contrast to his carefully calibrated approach to stadiums, Pawlenty has been defensive and prone to rash remarks on the subject of sex offenders. The flash point for his outbursts was the discovery that Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., a Level 3 sex offender released from custody by the Minnesota Department of Corrections last May, is the prime suspect in the November abduction and probable murder of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin. But his ire has been further fueled by criticisms from Attorney General Mike Hatch, whom many regard as Pawlenty's likely opponent in the 2006 governor's race. Hatch has charged that Pawlenty's budget cuts compromise the state's ability to assess and confine the most violent sex offenders.

After the Star Tribune reported in June that state officials were looking for ways to put 190 sex offenders in less restrictive settings, Hatch responded that cuts in the state budget may have been a motivating factor. Pawlenty angrily denied that any change in policy was being considered. But in subsequent testimony at a legislative hearing, a former clinical director for the sex offender program said she resigned because proposed changes to it seemed driven partly by cost concerns. She added that she was ordered by state forensic director Dr. Michael Farnsworth to identify 40 patients who might be released under state supervision. Three months later, Farnsworth resigned from his post, for reasons he claims were unrelated to the controversy.

When Rodriguez emerged as the suspect in Sjodin's disappearance, the governor went ballistic. He talked about reinstating the death penalty not only for murderers, but for those who commit violent rape and attempted murder, a proposed expansion of capital punishment that has already been ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court. He said the officials who released Rodriguez into the community "guessed wrong" and should be disciplined, a presumption of guilt that had his spokesman hurriedly replying later that day that the governor had indulged in a "poor choice of words." He suggested that average citizens be allowed to tap into the computer system used by state officials to monitor released sex offenders equipped with ankle bracelets (a measure that is not only of dubious law enforcement value, but could make the state legally liable for any acts of vigilantism that might occur as a result).

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