Capitol Offenses

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

Both parties also seem disinclined to support Pawlenty's call for a reinstatement of the death penalty. The governor's repeated claim that he will raise the issue of capital punishment during the 2004 session may be no more than a bone tossed to his more rabid supporters. As the reigning king of austerity budgets and no-tax pledges, Pawlenty is surely aware of the staggering annual costs borne by states that have the death penalty, estimated to be $51 million per year in Florida, $90 million in California, and $2.3 million per case in Texas. Executing prisoners requires funding for the long, complex gauntlet of trials and appeals featuring myriad expert witnesses and psychological evaluations. To institute capital punishment here would either provoke a substantial tax hike or push the state further into the red.

Pawlenty and other state lawmakers will have enough trouble finding money to fund their more modest anti-crime legislation. Hiring parole officers and buying equipment to operate the ankle bracelet monitoring program is expected to cost $17 million per year. At least another $10 million in annual funding will be required to staff the growing prison population. Meanwhile, it costs the state $314 a day to house each sex offender who has been civilly committed to a treatment facility, nearly quadruple the price of housing each prison inmate. We've already proposed putting the principal and interest costs for the construction of 851 new prison beds on our tab; the cost of building 150 beds at St. Peter isn't far behind.

At this point, nobody can accurately predict how much money will be spent this session to commit, incarcerate, monitor, and assess violent sex offenders. Nor can anyone be sure just yet where the money will come from. But we do know that next month's economic forecast is not apt to reveal a surplus in state budget revenues. And we know that the legislative leaders in both parties say they are not inclined to push for any increase in taxes. Short of an exotic funding scheme like the racino, that leaves cutting the budgets of other state programs. And indeed, that is what Pawlenty has already said he'll do, if necessary, to generate funding for his proposed anti-crime legislation.

Not too long ago, Minnesota enjoyed a reputation for innovative, prevention-oriented government programs that rooted out problems before they could overwhelm us. That spirit has been eclipsed by the politics of fear and hoarding. When the 2004 legislative session begins on Monday, it's a decent bet that it will be characterized by an expensive obsession with keeping the bad men away from our door, while ignoring the conditions that turn good boys into bad men in the first place. By now, it's common knowledge that a significant number of chronic and violent sex offenders were themselves the victims of chronic and violent abuse as children. Yet last year, Pawlenty and the state's Republicans slashed state funding for violence prevention grants, battered women's shelters, crisis nurseries, parenting time centers, Head Start, Early Childhood Family Education, childcare subsidies, School Readiness, health and development screening in the schools, Youthworks, Way To Grow, children's mental health screening, at-home infant care, and literally a dozen or more other worthy programs in the same vein.

Fear and hoarding for the masses, favors for well-heeled friends. Play ball.

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