The action irritated legislators considering a bill to delay reorganizing mental health services.
Legislators turned testy with a state agency official Wednesday when they learned that the Pawlenty administration will eliminate the jobs of 72 mental health workers on Friday and close or downsize four mental health facilities -- just as lawmakers are crafting laws to keep the services going.
"Why did you do this before the end of the session?" asked Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, at a meeting of the Senate Health and Human Services Budget Division.
Both houses are considering bills to slow the reorganization of state mental health services, announced last month by the Department of Human Services to save $17 million and address the state's budget gap.
The department had to proceed because of the pressing need to cut costs, said Michael Tessneer, head of State Operated Services, which runs the mental health facilities. The 72 workers are among 200 the department hopes to lay off. Any delay may force even more layoffs if the Legislature's bill does not pass, he said.
Sen. Linda Berglin, DFL-Minneapolis, whose bill would delay the plan, noted that "most of the $17 million shortfall [in State Operated Services] occurred'' because Gov. Tim Pawlenty cut, or unallotted, large sums last year.
With the layoffs, the department will close a 10-bed crisis center in Mankato and a 15-bed adult mental health residential facility in Eveleth. In addition, two community behavioral health hospitals in Willmar and Wadena will be converted to lower levels of care.
Of the 72 employees, two will retire, 35 will take other jobs in state government and 35 will leave state employment. The changes will save $7.6 million of the $17 million the department is seeking.
"This is affecting people's lives," said Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester. "These are people who have to figure out how to pay the mortgage, how to pay for food."
The state also intends to lay off workers at three of five dental clinics for people with mental illnesses or disabilities, but has delayed those layoffs for 30 days, while the Legislature is in session.
The rest of the 200 layoffs were to come from changes at Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center and at Minnesota Extended Treatment Options in Cambridge. The Human Services Department hoped to persuade legislators to change a 2009 law forbidding layoffs there, a change that hasn't happened.
Warren Wolfe • 612-673-7253