(St. Paul, MN) – It is no secret that the state must begin reevaluating agency budgets in the face of deep budget deficits and decreased tax revenue this year. However, I have concerns that cuts within state agencies have been disproportionately placed on Senate District 11 and the surrounding area. Since 2019, WINDOW Victim Advocacy, the Challenge Incarceration Program (CIP) at Willow River, and most recently, the Minnesota Sex Offender Program (MSOP) at Moose Lake Prison have lost their funding or been threatened with shut-downs, with little in the way of satisfactory explanation. The defunding of these programs has little impact on the overall budget, is an ill-conceived focus on one part of the state, and may have political implications.
The first program to get the cut was WINDOW Victim Advocacy, which served victims of violence and sexual abuse in Pine, Kanabec, and Carlton counties. The work they did was not only crucial for the women, children, and men they helped, but expanded well beyond expectations for a small organization. 1 in 50 people within our community received aid from WINDOW – it was something the entire state could claim as a triumph. Commissioner Harrington’s DPS claimed they had incomplete paperwork. Even after the organization hired an individual solely to fix their paperwork problem, DPS decided to remove their funding, forcing WINDOW to shut down. A new group has come in to start from scratch. This move negatively impacted many victims and left them vulnerable, searching for other nearby resources.
Next was the (CIP) at Willow River, whose minimum-security boot camp was a huge success. Non-violent inmates got the help they needed and learned valuable skills to benefit them upon release. In light of the current budget restructuring needs, the Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell announced that CIP would be canceled. It accounts for only 11% of the DOC budget.
Just last week, Commissioner Harpstead of the Department of Human Services (DHS) announced that the MSOP at Moose Lake would lose its funding, as well. This program offers rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for inmates – sorely needed facets in today’s incarceration system. Again, budget concerns were cited as the reason.
Two highly successful programs and one necessary program accounted for a practically minuscule amount of each agency’s budgets. Defunding one or two of these programs would be unfortunate, and I would have fought those decisions. However, with the advent of this third announcement for MSOP, I have begun to wonder about motive. It is extremely unusual for state agencies to allow one outstate area (which are smaller and more financially insignificant) to take the heaviest hits during budget cuts. It is entirely possible to spread the burden more evenly.
Senate District 11 was a flipped seat when I took my oath of office two years ago, meaning Democratic politicians had previously held it for quite some time. Many factors contribute to deciding program cuts, but it is unlikely that the governor-appointed Commissioners would cut three needed programs from a single area without some political motive, especially in an election year.
These programs are too valuable to our state and area to be squashed for slight offenses or petty political motives. The state agency’s recent choices for Senate District 11 affect hundreds of lives and livelihoods in a single geographic area. Our communities are already hurting after the events of this year. If there are better reasons for their actions than what I surmised, the agencies need to make them public. If not, they need to reevaluate their priorities and plans while deciding where to make budget cuts – perhaps switching focus to their bloated bureaucracy.