Pawlenty's Moose Lake plan a 'Cadillac?'by Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — House and Senate negotiators are proposing a revised capital investment bill that borrows about $1 billion for public works projects. The plan is still more expensive than Gov. Pawlenty's proposed bonding bill.
It also provides less money than Pawlenty requested for the expansion of a sex offender treatment facility in northern Minnesota.
That facility, located in Moose Lake, became a focal point for criticism last year when it installed several big screen TVs. Now, at least one lawmaker is calling the expansion the governor supports a Cadillac plan.
Late last month, Pawlenty held a news conference to criticize DFL legislative leaders for passing a bonding bill that spent $1 billion on public works projects. He also criticized the Legislature for not including his proposal to borrow $89 million to expand the sex offender facility at Moose Lake.
"We also thought it would be a good idea to continue to have sufficient capacity to detain serious and menacing sex offenders in our state," Pawlenty said at the time. "That's why we proposed to have the new facility for sex offender detention. That project was also not funded by the Legislature."
Democrats are now proposing to expand the facility for a little more than half of what Pawlenty wants to spend -- $47.5 million. Bonding bill negotiators say the governor's plan is too expensive.
Some lawmakers are criticizing the Pawlenty administration for including several features in the proposed expansion like a library, a recreation lounge, a craft room and a chapel.
"I question whether or not that's the right kind of amenities to put in there or not," said Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids. "The rest of us in society have libraries by Bookmobile. Maybe that's what they need to do."
Solberg said he understands that the people locked up at the Moose Lake facility are patients, and not prisoners. State law allows some sex offenders to be civilly committed and sent to Moose Lake for treatment, if a judge considers them too dangerous to be released.
But Solberg added he wants to know why the governor's expansion proposal is nearly double the amount proposed in a 2006 request.
"The governor expressed a big concern about big TVs, and now we're going from $47 million to $90 million," said Solberg. "That's a large increase, and we need to understand the reason why."
Pawlenty was the loudest critic when Moose Lake administrators bought two dozen, 50-inch plasma TVs for the facility, at a cost of $2,200 each. He demanded the TVs be removed and sold.
Some lawmakers say they'd prefer to fund college buildings instead of expanding a facility for the state's most dangerous sex offenders. But supporters of the plan say it's needed since Moose Lake is projected to run out of bed space by 2012.
In a written statement, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services said the elements in question -- including a canteen, a spiritual center and other space -- "are critical to meeting the constitutional threshold for a program for people who are civilly committed."
She said the proposal is more expensive than the 2006 plan because it includes the bed expansion and "essential programming and infrastructure spaces for the entire Moose Lake campus."
But Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said he doesn't think Gov. Pawlenty and the Department of Human Services should be asking for that much money.
In fact, Langseth says he thinks the tough economy would prompt some work-starved contractors to propose a low bid to get the work.
"I think most of this building could be done as cheaply or more cheaply than it was done in 2006, because of the situation with the contractors and the building trades," said Langseth.
Then there's the larger question of the number of sex offenders being admitted to the treatment facility.
The proposed expansion would add space for another 400 people to be housed there. It costs $330 a day to treat a sex offender at Moose Lake. Some lawmakers who are grappling with budget cuts to health programs, higher education and local governments are asking if there's a cheaper way to get the job done.
- All Things Considered, 03/09/2010, 5:20 p.m.