Capitol Offenses

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

In the 2003 session, the Minnesota State Legislature enacted a right-wing agenda that significantly altered the character and identity of the state. Our elected officials cut and cost-shifted more than $4.2 billion out of the budget while denying any tax increases that would have softened the damage done to programs that assisted people across the economic spectrum but were particularly crucial for the most vulnerable and needy. As a result, thousands of teachers were laid off, tens of thousands of people were priced out of access to health insurance, and hundreds of thousands of the state's poor, elderly, and disabled are now living under more brutal conditions than they were a year ago.

The Pawlenty administration justified these actions by claiming that the state's enormous deficit was the result of a "spending problem." With numbing frequency, Pawlenty disingenuously noted that last year's biennial budget was about to rise by 14 percent. But nearly all of that increase--a billion dollars' worth--was a one-time accounting anomaly stemming from a deal then-Rep. Pawlenty helped broker that had the state take over the funding of education (without any means to pay for it) so that local governments could cut their commercial/industrial property taxes.

The real reason for the state's red ink can be gleaned from a story in USA Today, using data compiled from the National Conference of State Legislatures. It shows that while Minnesota ranked 20th in the nation in the percentage increase of its state spending from 1997-2002, it cut taxes by a much larger percentage than any other state during that same period. The largest tax cut, again enacted with Pawlenty's staunch support, occurred just as the nation was plunging into a recession. The $4.2 billion deficit, then, would more accurately be described as a "tax-cutting problem."

Even the draconian cuts to social programs absorbed only half of the deficit. At that point, the fiscally sound course of action would have been for the governor to reverse the tax cuts responsible for the shortfall. But because he and his fellow Republicans were in thrall to the Taxpayers League of Minnesota, Pawlenty chose instead to tap into one-time dollars like the tobacco settlement fund and the budget reserve, to raise fees, to cost-shift duties on to local governments, and to engage in fanciful accounting such as the assumption that there would be no inflation over the next two years.

Consequently, less than three weeks after the close of session, Moody's Investors Service--"the most thorough of the bond houses, and the one we always paid the most attention to," says former Republican Governor Arne Carlson--downgraded Minnesota's bond rating from AAA to AA1, a move that will cost the state millions of dollars in interest on future borrowing. Former finance commissioners from both parties have written that, as a result of last session's fiscal irresponsibility, the state could face another billion-dollar deficit when assembling the 2006-07 biennial budget next year.

In this context, the upcoming session, which begins this Monday, February 2, could be viewed as the lull before the storm. It is an off year between the setting of biennial budgets. Current economic forecasts indicate that the state is facing only a $185 million shortfall in revenues, a margin that continued economic growth might erase by the time legislators convene next month. Despite a change in leadership, the DFL majority in the Senate is showing even less willingness to argue for a tax increase than they did a year ago, when they eventually rolled over and let Pawlenty and his party conduct their budget blitzkrieg.

This is not to say there won't be heated policy debates at the Capitol on boilerplate issues such as health care, education, the environment, and the bonding bill--particularly in the House, where all 134 members are up for reelection in November. But the defining legacy of this year's session most likely hinges on two issues that cut across party lines and could saddle taxpayers with enormous costs in future years, without repairing any of the damage to the state's network of social services: building stadiums and increasing sentences and civil commitments for violent sexual offenders.

 

STADIUMS: WANT ONE? OR TWO?

Pawlenty has played stadium politics with an adroit mixture of shameless cynicism and plausible deniability. As a state representative, he was a consistent opponent of public funding for stadiums. As a candidate for governor, he made a point of contrasting his anti-stadium position with his DFL opponent Roger Moe's record of advocating for a new Twins ballpark. His refusal to budge from his no-new-taxes pledge despite the obvious and enormous suffering it would cause many Minnesotans was the principal drama of the 2003 session. And yet now, despite his continued insistence that no general state tax revenue should be expended, the governor has inexorably greased the skids for passage of legislation that would enable the construction of at least one new stadium, and perhaps two.

With painstaking deliberation, Pawlenty has stoked momentum for public funding of new baseball and football stadiums that would benefit the billionaire owners of the Twins and Vikings. He appointed former state Sen. Roy Terwilliger, a die-hard stadium booster, to chair the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, and sent the message that the MSFC should drop its long-standing position that the Vikings ought to settle for a Metrodome renovation. He ostentatiously met with Vikings owner Red McCombs, a confab that clearly galvanized enthusiasm for a new stadium within the Vikings organization. He created a 19-member stadium steering committee, overwhelmingly packed with stadium advocates--including, ironically, his old nemesis Moe--and chaired by his closest political ally, former finance commissioner and current chief of staff Dan McElroy, to review proposals for both football and baseball stadiums.

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).

Pawlenty also made some substantive changes in state policy. Most notably, he has instructed county attorneys to track down 145 high-risk sex offenders who have been released from Minnesota prisons since 1997 and review their case files in conjunction with the Department of Corrections and the Attorney General's office to determine if they should be civilly committed to a treatment facility. If the county attorneys do not recommend commitment, Pawlenty adds, he is giving Hatch the authority to overrule them. A similar review system will be used on 94 sex offenders who have completed or are about to complete their prison sentences. This backlog has occurred in part because Pawlenty responded to the Star Tribune story and Hatch's criticism of his lax commitment standards by ordering the corrections department not to release any high-level sex offenders without a court order.

Irked that he wasn't consulted about these enormous additional responsibilities, Hatch said he would bill the counties $5,000 for each commitment case his office reviews. But the suddenly swamped county attorneys will have enough trouble coming up with overtime pay for their own personnel as they struggle to comply with Pawlenty's request. It doesn't help that last year's state budget cuts eliminated $590,000 that was specifically earmarked to reimburse local governments for their assessment of sex offenders.

With the Sjodin tragedy still vivid in people's minds, and with the highest statewide officeholder from each of the two major parties feuding over perceived lapses in public safety, it's a foregone conclusion that legislators will create longer prison sentences and increase the state's capacity for the civil commitment of sex offenders during this session. But as always, the devil will be in the details.

For example, as part of his bonding bill, the governor has already proposed borrowing $109 million to add 851 beds at the state prisons in Faribault and Stillwater, and another $3 million to plan for a 150-bed expansion of the treatment facility in St. Peter, where most of Minnesota's civilly committed sex offenders are housed. If Pawlenty puts prison-bed construction on a fast track while dawdling in the planning stage of the treatment center expansion, his bonding priorities may prevent him from following through on the legislative policies he has proposed in his crime bill to isolate violent sex offenders from the public.

Unless he has sent Hatch and the county attorneys on a wild goose chase, the tougher, more thorough case review Pawlenty has ordered on Level 3 sex offenders who have been released since 1997 will likely result in a large increase in civil commitments. The ranks of the committed will continue to soar if the legislature approves Pawlenty's proposal to require the Department of Corrections to seek civil commitments on any Level 3 sex offenders who are scheduled for release.

At the press conference where Pawlenty announced his crime bill, Human Services Commissioner Kevin Goodno estimated that the number of civil commitments will rise by as much as 50 percent a year. Yet at a Senate hearing early last week, Corrections Commissioner Joan Fabian said that the state's two treatment facilities for sex offenders are already close to capacity.

Where are these dangerous offenders going to be treated? The state can't keep them in prison, because they've already served their sentences. And the traditional solution of releasing inmates convicted of lesser crimes in order to make room for new arrivals obviously doesn't apply here. Of the 200 offenders committed to treatment in St. Peter or Moose Lake since the program began in 1994, only one has ever been released--and he's now back inside after violating his parole.

This raises the inconvenient and certainly unpopular matter of the offenders' constitutional rights. Minnesota's sex offender commitment program has consistently survived court challenges because the commitment process has been judicious, because there are programs and facilities specifically designed to rehabilitate sex offenders, and because there is at least the theoretical chance that offenders will eventually be released back into the community. By contrast, if the corrections department makes blanket commitment referrals for all Level 3 offenders, if lack of space prevents offenders from being housed in a treatment facility, and if no offender ever gets out, then there is a good chance that the program could be declared unconstitutional by the courts. It is the duty of Pawlenty and state legislators to ensure that the program is operated in a manner that prevents that from happening.

Because neither party wants to be viewed as "soft on crime" in the wake of sustained public outcry over Sjodin's disappearance, and because there are only so many ways you can be "tough on crime," their legislative proposals are very similar. Both are in favor of ankle bracelet monitors to track sex offenders out in the community who are not deemed to need commitment. Both propose longer sentences for those who commit violent crimes. One difference is that while Republicans are advocating mandatory life in prison without parole for those who commit heinous sexual assaults where cruelty or a vulnerable victim is involved, Democrats favor more "indeterminate," case-specific sentencing so that someone who has committed a brutal rape doesn't feel he has nothing to lose by killing his victim.

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.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Loading...