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Capitol Chatter: Political reaction changed mind on sex offenders

ST. PAUL —Politics made him do it.

In essence, that is the reason Gov. Mark Dayton gave for putting the brakes on further sex offender releases.

"We are facing this decision together," the Democratic governor said, while blasting House Republicans for not going along with plans earlier this year to change the sex offender release process.

Dayton is conflicted about the issue. While he said that serious sex offenders never "should walk free," he also realizes a federal judge is forcing the state to make sure sex offenders get treatment so they can be freed.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson, who works for Dayton, had recommended that a judicial panel consider releasing three sex offenders, including one with three convictions for sexually abusing teen girls. That raised the ire of many, especially Republicans and former House Speaker Kurt Zellers in particular.

Zellers, R-Maple Grove, went to the University of North Dakota, which Dru Sjodin attended when she was kidnapped and killed a decade ago. Convicted in the crime was a Minnesota sex offender who had been released from prison not long before Sjodin disappeared.

Zellers authored a 2004 bill providing harsher sex offender penalties.

Dayton criticized comments like those from Zellers, who said Dayton "continues to recklessly disregard the safety of Minnesotans by supporting the release of serial rapist Thomas Duvall. I call on Gov. Dayton to join with me and Attorney General Lori Swanson to halt the release of Duvall."

The issue is tricky.

Minnesota has upped prison terms for sex offenders since the Sjodin kidnapping. But that only applies to those convicted since the laws began; they cannot be applied to people already sentenced.

The state deals with sex offenders in two ways. First, a conviction can land them in prison.

Once the prison term is over, county attorneys may ask judges to commit some of the worst offenders to treatment. The theory is that once treated, they can be released.

However, only one man in the 20 years the treatment program has existed has graduated and been released. Essentially, being committed is the same as a life prison term.

That is fine with many Minnesotans, Dayton said, but a federal judge says it violates the offenders’ rights. If Minnesota does not develop a new program, and do it soon, the judge may opt to take over the program.

If federal courts run the sex offender treatment program, many Minnesota state officials fear offenders who are released still could pose a public safety risk. They do not trust the federal government to put Minnesotans’ safety on the top of their priority list.

So state legislators, the Dayton administration and a task force are looking for ways to meet federal law but still keep sex offenders away from potential victims.

Nguyen off and running

A 43-year-old Vietnam native is the first Republican candidate for Minnesota secretary of state.

Dennis Nguyen (pronounced "win") says he is running because he has seen success and "I want to make sure that dream is available to all Minnesotans, through their right to vote and participate in elections and in their ability to start and grow a business."

The secretary of state is the top elections officer and his office is where businesses file paperwork with the state.

Former state House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, is Nguyen’s campaign chairman.

The new candidate runs a financial services firm, New Asia Partners, in Minneapolis.

Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie is not running for a third term. Democratic state Reps. Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center and Steve Simon of Hopkins are running.

On the GOP side, Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, a former secretary of state, has said she is thinking about running. So has Kent Kaiser, who worked for Kiffmeyer.

Kline examines Obamacare

U.S. Rep. John Kline says that new federal health care law is affecting education.

The Minnesota Republican said the law, known as Obamacare, could cut student services and drive up education costs.

"We must be mindful that federal policies unrelated to education can still burden classrooms," Kline said. "The health care law is a prime example. At a time when we need to recruit the best teachers, train today’s workers for the jobs of the future and school leaders are trying to do more with less, imposing a fundamentally flawed and costly law on our schools is not in the best interests of teachers, parents, taxpayers or students."

In a meeting he led as chairman of the House Education Committee, Kline heard from education leaders who supported his point.

"The last thing I need right now is another mandate and another expense, because it will impact the enrichment programs, it will impact class sizes…" Meriden, Conn., School Superintendent Mark Benigni told the committee. "I can tell you it isn’t going to be good for our students in Meriden if we continue on the road we have."

Thomas P. Jandris of Concordia University Chicago said that money reallocated to programs like Obamacare means less for hiring instructors.

"The reality is it …could actually force us into a position of having to increase tuition by as much as 20 percent," Jandris said.

GOP official running

The woman many Republicans credit for holding the party together during a tough time is running for what will be an open state House seat.

Republican Deputy Chairwoman Kelly Fenton of Woodbury announced she has filed paperwork to seek the House seek being vacated by Rep. Andrea Kieffer, R-Woodbury. State worker Kay Hendrickson already is seeking the Democratic nod for the office.

Fenton, who told the Woodbury Bulletin that she will remain a state party official at least for the time being, became interim party leader when Tony Sutton quit the job at the end of 2011, leaving more than $2 million in debt.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.