Gov. Tim Pawlenty has criticized the federal aid but is using it to help fund the state's treatment program, paying more than 40 percent of the program's $65 million budget this year.
For months, in his travels around the country, Gov. Tim Pawlenty has loudly denounced the massive federal stimulus package as "misdirected" and "largely wasted."
But back home, one of his highest priorities -- the state's controversial sex offender treatment program -- has been quietly relying on those temporary funds for its very existence.
More than 40 percent of the program's $65 million budget this year comes from President Obama's economic stimulus initiative, with the money paying the salaries of 392 of the program's 700 employees.
Sen. Linda Berglin, the DFL lead on the committee overseeing the treatment program, said Pawlenty's Department of Human Services called last year and asked to have stimulus money steered to it. State officials, she said, had discovered they could not use the federal funds where they had hoped, but found that they could apply them to the sex offender program. "They did call us and ask us about rearranging it," Berglin said.
Brian McClung, Pawlenty's spokesman, said that if federal stimulus money had not come, cuts would have been made elsewhere to prevent the sex offender program from facing reductions. "Gov. Pawlenty has made it very clear that public safety is among our highest priorities," McClung said.
Some DFLers say the diversion of stimulus money to shore up the finances of the treatment program is an example of how Pawlenty is attempting to have things both ways: Criticizing Obama's stimulus program for political purposes -- he once termed it "a meandering spending buffet" -- but hoping few notice that the funds have helped mask the impact of his spending cuts.
"I find it kind of strange that the governor would have ever said a bad thing about [stimulus money], and then built his budget around [it]," Berglin said.
A quiet redirection of funds
At almost the time state officials shifted the stimulus money, the sex offender program was facing a $16 million shortfall that threatened its ability to meet payroll or pay vendors.
In March 2009, DHS Commissioner Cal Ludeman went to legislators pleading for stopgap funding. His request was granted, with no public discussion of stimulus funding.
The move to shove stimulus money into the program redirected $26.5 million of the $2 billion that flowed to DHS as part of the federal effort to help Minnesota through its economic crisis.
As recently as a week ago, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said she was unaware that stimulus money was propping up the sex offender program. So was Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, who chairs the House Health Care and Human Services Finance panel. Huntley said Pawlenty's "negative" view of stimulus money was difficult to understand given where the money had gone.
Dennis Benson, executive director for the sex offender program, declined to be interviewed for this story. Bonnie Martin, the program's spokesperson, would not address how the program came to be so dependent on stimulus, but said that when that money runs out, the program will revert to using state general fund money.
"Nothing has changed due to the stimulus funds," Martin said.
Berglin agreed, adding it was unlikely that the program, which has faced recurring funding difficulties, would otherwise have faced drastic cuts.
"We used the money [where we could] to help us balance our budget, essentially," she said.
A signal for overall budget
Management and Budget Commissioner Tom Hanson, who is overseeing Minnesota's stimulus spending, said the shaky financial footing of the sex offender program is symbolic of what lies ahead for the overall state budget.
The key question, he said, is what happens when the stimulus money "goes away, and the expenses stay."
"We're going to have to replace all of that," Hanson said.
Berglin said Pawlenty has been politically handcuffed ever since the infamous case of Dru Sjodin, the woman who was abducted and murdered by a convicted sex offender early in the governor's first term.
The incident led Pawlenty to reject any changes to the state's sex offender program, she said, even though it cannot be financially sustained.
No one has ever successfully completed treatment at the Moose Lake site of the program, which means the first offender committed still resides there, along with more than 500 other offenders.
That number is expected to nearly double in seven years.
Minnesota is near the top in states that use civil commitment to keep sex offenders confined after they have served their prison terms. Costs that stood at $32.3 million in 2005 are projected to hit $67.5 million next year.
That has led DFLers to complain that the program's costs are unsustainable.
Pawlenty and DFLers spent part of this legislative session wrestling over an $89 million building expansion of the Moose Lake facility. Pawlenty threatened to veto a $1 billion bonding bill to get the expansion.
Acknowledging the program's problems, Pawlenty last month proposed longer prison sentences for sex offenders as an alternative to civil commitment. Prison costs are $63 per day, while the treatment component of civil commitment ramps those costs up to $325 a day.
In another sign of the controversy surrounding the sex offender treatment program, it was announced Friday that the state Legislative Auditor will begin a thorough study of it.
Staff writer Rachel E. Stassen-Berger contributed to this article. Mike Kaszuba • 651-222-1673