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Public safety bill heads to final vote

ST. PAUL - No single public safety issue has gripped Minnesota lawmakers this legislative session, but they are poised to approve $2 billion in spending on courts, the corrections system and anti-crime measures.

A conference committee of House and Senate negotiators reached agreement on a public safety and judiciary finance bill that would spend about $1.8 billion from the state's general fund during the two-year budget period beginning July 1. The state budget could hit $35 billion.

Both the House and Senate were planning to give the bill final approval today before sending it to Gov. Tim Pawlenty for his consideration. On Tuesday, Pawlenty sounded like he would sign the measure.

During the past few legislative sessions, public safety issues played a larger role at the Capitol than they have in 2007. In recent years lawmakers toughened state laws regarding sex offenders and methamphetamine. This year's bill addresses a host of public safety issues, but none that generated widespread attention.

"It's a pretty low-key bill," said DFL Rep. Dave Olin of Thief River Falls, who observed conference committee discussions.

Still, the bill funds the state's judicial and corrections systems, pays for more judges, broadens a drug court program, toughens penalties for some criminal offenses and funds initiatives to help deter youth from entering a life of crime.

A number of smaller provisions have garnered lawmakers' support.

While there is funding for new district court judges in Minnesota, the bill also provides $4.2 million to expand the state's drug court program.

Olin, a former Pennington County attorney, said the philosophy behind drug courts is that some first-time drug offenders can be rehabilitated while under close supervision "without even getting them into the criminal system."

"I'm really curious to see what it will do in a rural setting," Olin said of plans to expand the drug court.

Sen. Mary Olson, a Bemidji Democrat and conference committee member, touted increased penalties for people who violate no-contact orders in domestic violence cases.

"We're sending a clear message that that type of violence is not acceptable," said Olson, an attorney and freshman lawmaker. She also noted provisions of the bill that toughen penalties for certain sex crimes.

There is $750,000 to start a one-on-one mentoring program for youth whose parents are incarcerated. Earlier this year, legislators visited juvenile male offenders at Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing, where two-thirds of the residents said they had a parent who served time behind bars.

The mentoring program is an attempt to "break that cycle that we saw so clearly in Red Wing," said DFL Sen. Linda Higgins of Minneapolis, a co-chairwoman of the conference committee.

In a recent letter, Pawlenty applauded the conference committee leaders for including many of his budget recommendations in the bill. However, the Republican governor warned the entire bill could face a veto because of insurance provisions he said could result in double-digit insurance premium hikes.

The finance bill doesn't include a provision allowing 13-year-olds charged with committing murder to be tried as adults, a year younger than now allowed.

That measure, dubbed "Emily's Law" after 2-year-old Emily Lynn Johnson of Fergus Falls who died after being assaulted by a teen, was tucked into the House bill during a floor debate. It wasn't included in the Senate's version and was eliminated during conference committee negotiations.

"It is quite frustrating, but it's not a total surprise they're going to pull it out," said Republican Rep. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake. Westrom and GOP Rep. Bud Nornes of Fergus Falls pushed for the provision.

Westrom, a House public safety committee member, said he will continue to lobby for the law change.

"I think we've still taken good steps forward," he said.

The bill also:

-- Requires data be collected on customers of scrap metal dealers in an attempt to curb metal theft in Minnesota.

-- Funds seven new district court judges and 34 new public defenders.

-- Increases the number of forensic scientists to process evidence at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

-- Broadens sexual predator laws to prohibit the use of computers to solicit children.

-- Allows a victim of domestic abuse to terminate a residential lease agreement without penalty.