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Legislators agree on judiciary bill
A bill that funds the state courts, public safety and public defense is on its way to Gov. Pawlenty. The Minnesota House passed the bill Wednesday on a 70-to-62 vote. Supporters say the bill is the best they can do in difficult budget times.

Lawmakers are working to pass a budget that erases a $4.2 billion deficit without raising taxes. Opponents say the bill is filled with fees and is bad public policy. It was the only major piece of legislation to pass on the second day of the Legislature's special session.

St. Paul, Minn. — The judiciary budget bill increases fees for filing motions, pleadings and other paperwork that comes before state courts, including several that currently cost nothing. The bill also raises on parking and speeding ticket penalties and creates higher co-pays for people who use public defenders.

Despite the revenue increases, the bill makes a three percent cut to the state's court system. Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, says there are big fee increases in the bill, but says lawmakers haven't increased the surcharges in years. The St. Cloud Republican also says he believes the higher fees will help deter people from filing frivolous lawsuits.

"There is a lot of good reform in this bill and members while the bill isn't perfect at the same time we're in a serious budget deficit. We have the worst budget deficit in two decades. We have to cut somewhere. The cuts we have to the courts are fairly minimal compared to a lot of other areas," he said.

If the bill becomes law, charges on most offenses, including speeding tickets, would increase from $35 to $60. Parking tickets will cost an additional three dollars.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, says House Republicans and Gov. Pawlenty are getting around their no-new-taxes pledge by increasing hundreds of millions of dollars of fees in the budget bills. He says the money from the fees isn't going to local police departments and counties but into the state's general fund.

"I'm asking you if that money is going to the police officer or to the police department that gave me the ticket or if it's being stolen and going into the general fund of the state of Minnesota to run government and you're calling it a fee or a fine and I'm calling it a screw job to the people of Minnesota," he said.

Other lawmakers complained that the increase in co-payments for a public defender is unreasonable. Supporters say current law already requires defendants to pay part of the cost of representation. But opponents say the bill increases co-payments substantially for more serious crimes. It also requires the courts to do financial background checks on defendants to make sure they can't afford an attorney on their own.

Rep. Keith Ellison, DFL-Minneapolis, says he's worried that lawmakers are setting a bad precedent. The Minneapolis DFLer called the provision a slippery slope.

"In our cases, both federal and state, there's a long history to the right to counsel. So should we rewrite our constitution that says you have the right to remain silent. You have the right to counsel and if you cannot afford it, counsel will be appointed to you as long as you've got 200 bucks?" he said.

The bill also requires state prisons to double-bunk inmates if necessary. It would also allow the Department of Corrections to feed inmates two meals a day on weekends and holidays, instead of three.

Courts would also have to sentence convicted felons with less than 180 days left on their sentence to the county jail, workhouse or work farm. The bill creates a fund to help counties offset the costs.

The judiciary bill was the only major piece of the budget to come up before either chamber. Legislative leaders say the hope to finish all of the budget bills before the weekend.

House Majority Leader Erik Paulsen says negotiators are close to resolving their differences on the K-12 budget and the transportation budget bill. He says they'll work into the weekend if necessary. "The important issue is not what's comfortable for members but what's best for the state of Minnesota and how they view us. I think they want us to stay here and complete our work before we go home," he said.

In addition to the transportation and K-12 bills, the outstanding budget bills are health and human services, taxes, and bonding.

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