A Minnesota legislator’s plan to shut down traffic diversion classes across the state and require local officials to refund the motorists who paid to take them is igniting a war of words with the county sheriff whose program started the controversy.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski’s proposal comes on the heels of a judge’s ruling that Wabasha County’s safe driving programs were illegal. The lawsuit was brought by two county commissioners who alleged that law enforcement for years flouted a state law prohibiting such classes. Since then, 15 jurisdictions have opted to shut their programs down to avoid similar court action. Others say they’ll keep running until they get a clear signal from the Legislature.
Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said Tuesday that the only solution is to enact a clear ban on such programs, which he said were continued out of greed by local jurisdictions, despite repeated warnings from the state auditor.
“This is a greedy activity, and we’ve said it’s illegal,” Drazkowski said. “It is time for the government to follow the law.”
County and city officials who fail to reimburse participants for fees paid would have twice that amount taken from their Local Government Aid allocations.
Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh, whose county is within Drazkowski’s district, contends that Drazkowski’s bill is “absolutely personal” and the result of ongoing feuding among county officials.
“All the chiefs and sheriffs know what’s going on in Wabasha County, they know this is personal,” said Bartsh, who is also president of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association. “They’re upset that the state’s getting dragged into it because of these personal petty issues.”
Drazkowski said of Bartsh’s comments that, “When you’re losing a debate, the first thing you turn to is personal attacks.”
Diversion programs like Wabasha County’s allow motorists to keep traffic violations off their driving records in exchange for paying to take a class, with the fees going to local officials. Wabasha’s classes brought in $400,000 over 10 years. Across Minnesota, such classes raised about $1.6 million between 2010 and 2012.
State Auditor Rebecca Otto has warned for years that such programs were illegal because they diverted revenue from the state. Penalties from traffic citations are split between local jurisdictions and the state.
Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, said he’s spoken with Bartsh about the diversion programs and is interested in crafting a solution. He declined to specifically address Drazkowski’s bill, but said he believes the programs have some positive elements.
“The path that’s unfolded here may be for the better when it’s all said and done,” Schmit said.