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Sex offender treatment facility nixed from state bonding bill

ST. PAUL - Minnesota House and Senate negotiators early today rejected Gov. Tim Pawlenty's major request for a public works funding bill - $89 million to expand a Moose Lake sex offender treatment facility.

Negotiators on the House-Senate conference committee that made the sex offender decision approved borrowing and spending $999.9 million for projects ranging from fixing college roofs to expanding the state trail system. But Democrats who control the Legislature left out Republican Pawlenty's biggest want, opening the door for a veto of the entire bill.

The conference committee is to work this morning on wrapping up the public works bill, which is funded by the state selling bonds, then send it for a full House and Senate vote later today.

Instead of the Moose Lake funding, the final bill is expected to include a provision that would order an extensive study about the needs for more facilities and, more basically, whether existing sex offender laws should be changed.

On Sunday, Dennis Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, told conference committee negotiators that $61 million the $89 million is needed to expand basic infrastructure such as kitchens to handle an expected increase in coming years, with much of the remaining $28 million for more bed space.

Much of the Moose Lake facility was built for 100 sex offenders, he said, but that facility and another in St. Peter house 550, with at least 60 more being added each year. Pawlenty's $89 million would build room for 400 more offenders.

The Moose Lake and St. Peter facilities hold sex offenders who have ended their prison sentences, but judges have deemed too dangerous to release to society.

The state program is in legal danger, Benson warned. Sex offenders in the program have filed several lawsuits, and Benson said that he is especially concerned that the courts will get involved because so many more are in the program than the facilities were built to handle.

"We are in a spot here..." Benson said. "The courts are watching this program very extensively and very carefully."

Laws have been tightened in the past seven years, since Dru Sjodin was killed and her body found near Crookston. A convicted sex offender not long out of prison was found guilty in her death.

Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, tried to get Benson to agree to a lower spending level, asking him to phase in the facility. But, Benson said, that would cost much more money in the long term.

While the conference committee was discussing the sex offender issue, Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, and others were working behind the scenes on an agreement that would protect Red River communities downriver from Fargo-Moorhead. Downstream communities fear the proposed flood diversion would send more water their way.

Rep. Kent Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, got the House to amend the public works bill, also known as the bonding bill, to forbid any state spending on the diversion unless the federal government agreed to prevent downstream problems.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said everyone agrees that downstream communities need to be protected; it is just a matter of getting language worked out, he said. In the six to 10 years it will take to complete a diversion, Langseth added, downstream problems can be worked out.

The overall bonding bill, which Pawlenty wants to come in at $685 million compared to the $1 billion legislators passed, funds state projects ranging from new trails to repair of college buildings. Pawlenty has said he would veto the bill, or individual projects, if it is too costly.