A controversial proposal to reduce penalties for a number of criminal offenses as a way to cut costs was narrowly passed Monday by the Senate.
Requirements for minimum prison time for some repeat drug offenders would be thrown out. Drunken drivers convicted of multiple violations would no longer face a minimum three-year prison sentence. People convicted as predatory offenders wouldn't face mandatory time behind bars for failing to register properly.
The public safety spending bill that includes the provisions was a bitter one for legislators who might be worried about having a "soft-on- crime" label pasted on the next campaign brochures. It actually failed in its first vote Monday, but a procedural maneuver brought it back to life and it then passed, 34-31.
Even the sponsor of the measure, Sen. Linda Higgins, DFL-Minneapolis, adopted a hold-your-nose philosophy in presenting the bill, using the scales of justice as an analogy for "balancing public safety and a fiscal crisis."
The DFL-controlled Senate has proposed across-the-board spending cuts to help erase the state's $4.6 billion projected budget deficit.
The bill that squeaked by Monday cuts 7 percent from the state's public safety budget, but a $30 million infusion of federal stimulus money to the Department of Corrections would reduce the hit to $48 million.
Among the cuts to the state's corrections system: a $38.6 million reduction in the prisons' base budget and a $2.4 million cut in renting 100 beds from the private Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton. The commissioner of corrections also is being asked to consider consolidating staff from prisons close to each other, and the bill would reduce dental services at prisons by $1.2 million. Homeland Security also would take a $340,000 hit, and the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension budget would be reduced by $5.6 million.
The bill was ripe for criticism during debate. Eleven DFLers joined 20 Republicans in voting against the measure. Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, who serves on the Public Safety Budget Division, called the end product a "very irresponsible act" and pointed out that the measure provides $51 million less than Gov. Tim Pawlenty has proposed.
Sen. Dick Day, R-Owatonna, said the bill amounts to allowing "the thugs to run our streets."
"What do you have to do to go to jail in Minnesota? Quite a bit," Day said.
Sen. Ann Lynch, DFL-Rochester, switched her vote to support the bill on the second go-round, saying afterward her votes were a struggle over the costs of addressing a pressing $4.6 billion budget deficit.
"I came here to make good policy and to move things forward in a progressive way for this state. This session has been nothing but frustration. But I knew I came here with a job to do, and this is part of what I have to do," she said.
Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636