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Gov. Tim Walz speaks to the press after meeting with legislative leaders on May 7. Walz said little had changed over the course negotiations last week with Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, House Speaker Melissa Hortman and others, and that talks would break off until Sunday, May 12. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Judiciary might benefit from budget compromise

If early signals are accurate indicators, one particular portion of the public safety omnibus budget—judiciary funding—appears most likely to benefit from a pending but still unachieved budget compromise.

If a deal is eventually reached, the gap between the House’s $49.818 billion overall state budget plan and the Senate’s $47.726 billion stance will close. (Gov. Tim Walz’s proposal is slightly smaller than the House’s at $49.351 billion.)

When that happens, the Senate public safety omnibus, which currently checks in at $2.385 billion total for 2020-21, will probably get a little bigger. The House version, which proposes $2.592 billion in spending for cops, courts and corrections, likely will get a little smaller.

In early hearings, lawmakers from both parties emphasized that funding for courts, public defenders and guardians ad litem are constitutional mandates that should not be neglected—though the bill’s Senate version offers almost no such increases.

There seems to be consensus that will change.

“I’m definitely more hopeful on the judiciary side of things that we might be able to get to a point [of compromise],” said Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul. Lesch, chair of House Judiciary, is also a key member of the conference committee. The House omnibus’ judicial components derive from bills passed out of his committee.

“I agree with [Lesch] in general,” said Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, the Senate Judiciary chair. “Constitutional mandates should be the highest priority.”

The conference’s House co-chair, Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, also thinks the judiciary likely will get more funding than the comparatively stingy Senate omnibus now offers. The GOP-led Senate provides almost $82 million less than the DFL House for judiciary-related spending.

But that doesn’t mean Mariani is ready to give up on the raft of other House policy and spending priorities that make up the bulk of his bill’s roughly 330 pages.

“My two goals are to be able to set a strong argument on how core functions, in fact, are being hurt [by the Senate bill],” Mariani said. “And then to be able to push back effectively on this argument that we have to have real minimal policy.”

‘It really limits us’

For the moment, it’s all academic. With negotiations between the governor and legislative leaders shut down until May 12, the public safety bill’s House and Senate spending positions were still $207 million apart as of Thursday afternoon.

“It really limits us,” Limmer said of the breakdown of talks. “I always advocate [to] keep talking, even if it’s difficult.”

With no revised targets to work with, Limmer scrubbed a scheduled Wednesday hearing. Friday’s meeting (after this edition’s deadline), which Limmer would have presided over, also was likely to be canceled.

However, Mariani plowed ahead on days when the gavel was his. He scheduled hearings on Thursday (under way at time of this writing) and Saturday (after press time). That at least gave a number of agency heads and policy-bill authors the chance to argue for their causes.

Some parts of Minnesota’s judicial system are in rougher shape than others, according to testimony. The state’s guardians ad litem, for instance, are so badly understaffed that 250 cases involving children in need of protective services—about 500 kids total—are going unrepresented in Minnesota’s courts.

Tami Baker-Olson, the Guardian ad Litem Board’s new state administrator, asked the committee for full funding of the board’s $44.4 million two-year budget request. Most of that continues base funding from the previous biennium, but it also includes an $8.6 million, two-year request to hire 46 full-time workers.

Both Lesch and Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis park, spoke up on Olson’s behalf. Lesch said federal funding for the guardians program is threatened if Minnesota fails to meeting minimal staffing standards. He said guardians ad litem play a pivotal role in Minnesota’s court system.

“Without them, or without enough of them, the gears come screeching to a halt,” Lesch said.

Latz said that underfunding the program means more children will go unrepresented in court. He said guardians are trained to interview children and collect vital information that courts need, but don’t have the resources to collect on their own.

“So it really does raise constitutional as well as moral implications in this budget area,” Latz said. “I think we have an obligation to find the resources for them.”

More requests

Kevin Kajer, the state Board of Public Defense’s chief administrator, testifies during a May 7 conference committee hearing. If caseloads continue rising at the present rate without additional funding, he said, the state will have only 63% of the public defenders needed to meet national and state staffing standards. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Kevin Kajer, the state Board of Public Defense’s chief administrator, testifies during a May 7 conference committee hearing. If caseloads continue rising at the present rate without additional funding, he said, the state will have only 63% of the public defenders needed to meet national and state staffing standards. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Kevin Kajer, the state Board of Public Defense’s chief administrator, also testified Tuesday. The governor’s $12.7 million, two-year request to hire 108 new public defenders and support staff is carried in the House omnibus. It is missing in the Senate version.

The House bill also includes the governor’s recommendation of $11.9 million to boost starting salaries from $55,115 to about $63,000. The Senate bill does not.

Kajer said that the public defender’s office is confronted with a “perfect storm” of problems.

Caseloads are rising rapidly, he said. His office has seen a 15% increase in felony cases assigned to its office in the past three years. Since 2015, Kajer said, the office has experienced a 21% increase in gross misdemeanor cases and a 50% increase child protection cases.

Yet it has just 68% as many attorneys as state and federal guidelines indicate are needed to cover present caseloads. If those continue to rise at the present rate without new hires, Kajer said, staffing will soon be at just 63%.

That’s happening at the same time the office has run into a paucity of applicants for open positions, particularly in Greater Minnesota. Meanwhile, attorney positions are opening at a rapid rate. Kajer said that fully 8.5% of his attorney staff resigned to take other jobs last year.

“We are losing folks, by and large, to prosecutors’ offices—both county and city—and to other public agencies,” Kajer said. “And the number one reason is pay.”

Mariani asked Kajer whether innocent people might end up in prison because of the public defender shortage. Yes, Kajer said: “We have that going on right now.”

Jeff Shorba, the Judicial Branch’s state court administrator, argued for court funding. He said that unless the branch’s $1.76 million request for treatment court sustainability is met, five existing treatment courts in Anoka, Olmsted, Scott and Wright counties are endangered. Their federal grants are expiring.

“Treatment courts have become one of the most effective criminal justice tools we have to fight the rise of opioids and other drug addiction in Minnesota,’ Shorba said.

Shorba further argued for the 3% judicial and staff salary hikes proposed for the Supreme Court and state Court of Appeals. He did not argue for—though he did not oppose—a 4% raise for District Court judges, because it wasn’t a Judicial Council proposal. That came out of a House bill authored by Lesch.

Shorba also urged lawmakers to grant the branch’s request for two new judgeships to deal with rising caseloads caused by a large increase in domestic assault, drug possession and child protection cases coming into the courts.

After the hearing, Limmer pointedly reiterated what he has said before—that the Senate higher-ups who set his budget targets failed to understand the significance of the constitutional mandates his budget division is responsible for.

“There are responsibilities that we have to maintain and satisfy,” he said. “So I don’t think our target creators necessarily understand that—despite my best efforts to pound on them, telling them that these are constitutional requirements.”

The Legislature has until May 20 to wrap up its business for the 2019 session.

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