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Minnesota Legislature: Olson named to several conference committees

Minnesota Senate DFL leadership appointed Sen. Mary Olson, DFL-Bemidji, to several conference committees to work out differences between House and Senate bills.

She will serve on both the omnibus public safety policy and budget conference committees. And, as chairwoman on the subcommittee on data practices, she will also serve on the omnibus data practices conference committee.

It's the first time Olson has been appointed as a conferee to both policy and finance committees, she said Wednesday. The finance conference committee will deal with budgets for the Departments of Public Safety and Corrections, as well as the state's court system. The other panel will negotiate the omnibus public safety policy bill.

Olson serves as vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Policy Committee. Earlier this session, she hosted a meeting with representatives from the courts and other stakeholders to discuss reform initiatives to help address the public safety portion of the budget deficit, which includes budgets for the courts and prisons.

The Senate's budget plan currently includes two cost-saving reform measures which evolved from the meeting and were introduced as bills by Olson, the Bemidji Democrat said:

--Expanding the use of restorative justice for first-time juvenile petty offenders automatically and others with the county attorney's recommendation. The proposal would use trained facilitators, who often are volunteers from the faith community or criminal justice higher education programs, to bring together non-violent juvenile offenders with their victims or, if the victim prefers, a representative acting for the victim to come to terms on an appropriate sanction for the offender.

"I'm excited to say, the restorative justice program, I think, has a very high chance of being adopted this year because it's in the bill on both sides and it's something everyone seems to like," the Bemidji Democrat said.

Restorative justice has been found to save court and out-of home placements costs, and reduce recidivism, Olson said.

"Restorative justice is a framework that engages offenders, victims, and the community in repairing the harm caused by crime," said Olson. "It also gives those most affected by crime options for participation in a variety of restorative practices that promote healing."

--Establishing a special master position to oversee pretrial hearings in district court cases. The special master could be used to perform certain administrative functions before the start of trial, including obtaining admissions of fact and documents to avoid unnecessary proof, identifying witnesses and documents, and facilitating possible settlements.

The steps could save expensive court time and would also help to reduce the backlog of cases waiting to be heard, she said.

"Reliable law enforcement and a responsive court system are core government services essential to maintaining a safe and orderly society," said Olson. "However, given the sheer magnitude of the budget deficit we're facing in Minnesota, we must keep working on prudent reforms and developing creative, cost-saving approaches that build on the partnership between the state, counties, and the courts."

Olson said she had some concerns about a couple provisions currently in the Senate's budget bill. She voted against one of the two public safety budget bills originally passed by the Senate because of concerns she had with specific provisions relating to repeat drunk drivers and sex offender registration.

The two funding bills have since been combined to streamline the conference committee process, and Olson said she would use her position on the conference committee to ensure that the bill prioritizes public safety, understanding cuts will also need to be made.

"As we work on balancing the state's budget, we need to look for creative solutions that will not jeopardize public safety," said Olson. "I hope to provide a voice that helps balance these critical concerns."

Both the public safety policy and budget conference committees begin meeting this week. The hearings will start with an overview of the House and Senate bills, which will then be followed by negotiations between House and Senate conferees. Once agreements are reached, the entire Legislature will have a chance to vote on the compromise bills before they are sent to the governor.

Olson said she would chair the data practices subcommittee.

"That's going to be a bigger one than probably normal because we have quite a few provisions in there that people are interested in," Olson said.

One, an Olson provision, would make hunting, fishing and all-terrain vehicle license information non-public data.

"I balance things," she said. "Some view it as government information but I look at it as private citizen information that citizens have been forced to give to the government because we say if you want a license to fish or hunt or drive a four-wheeler or own a gun, we're going to make you give us this information.

"I don't think we should be able to turn around and sell it," she added. "Most people wouldn't like the government to do that. They expect the government to keep what would normally be considered private information to keep that information private."

The provision would make the information private, barring state agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources from selling license information which can be used by others, such as gun-owner associations or environmental groups to solicit members.

"Political parties were doing it too," she said.

Olson said, however, that a count should be taken of "all the provisions trying to make government information -- what I consider to be truly government information -- private that I've turned away because I don't agree that government should be keeping information from the public as general rule without a darn good reason."