Minnesota's controversial Sex Offender Program will run out of money next month unless a bill to cover a $16 million shortfall gets quick action in the state Senate, officials said Wednesday.

That legislative action may occur as early as today, when Sen. Richard Cohen says he expects the bill to win approval in the Finance Committee. Gone from the measure, he said, would be a recent amendment that department officials said would cost the program federal matching funds.

On the House side, the bill is headed to the floor.

State Human Services Commissioner Cal Ludeman said there was never a chance that a lack of funding might prompt the release of some offenders, which can only be done through court order. But he said that the funding delay had pushed the program to the brink and forced his department to contemplate serious measures.

"We might find ourselves trying to figure out how we pay staff after April 1," Ludeman said. "We might have to delay payments to food service vendors, contractors."

"We are mandated to provide a certain level of care and supervision. I don't know how we do that without this money."

The Sex Offender Program, which has an annual budget of $76 million, provides housing and treatment for 510 sex offenders who have finished their prison time and are now civilly committed to psychiatric hospitals at St. Peter and Moose Lake.

The program is designed to prepare offenders for provisional court-authorized release into the community, but since its inception in 1994 only one patient has been released. He was returned to the program after leaving the state without permission.

Executive director Dennis Benson, a former corrections deputy commissioner, said two offenders are on the runway for provisional release and a third is headed there. But because of the funding issue, he said, officials have had to look for possible places to cut, with employees deemed nonessential a possible target, he said.

"It's necessary that policymakers understand the sense of urgency with respect to this request" for funding, he said.

The Sex Offender Program is growing dramatically.

The state recently added a new building at Moose Lake with 400 beds. But the building wasn't finished on time, forcing the program to rent beds from the nearby state prison. The construction delay cost the program $13 million, from the cost of renting prison space and the loss of anticipated savings connected with the new facility. The rest of the shortfall can be traced to additional patients at Moose Lake.

Brian McClung, Gov. Tim Pawlenty's spokesman, said that the issue was a "major concern" for the governor and that the need for passage is urgent. The Pawlenty administration, he said, "has cracked down hard on sex offenders and there are costs associated with that," and has fully funded the program in its budget.

Ludeman said shortfall bills such as this are typically dealt with quickly and not allowed to mushroom to near-crisis level.

"This needs to be done, and quickly, to prevent disruptions in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program," he said. "We are now within days of having this program run out of money, and that's never happened before."

kduchschere@startribune.com • 651-292-0164 plopez@startribune.com • 651-222-1288