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Talks involve sex offender facility, floods

ST. PAUL -- Minnesota House and Senate negotiators considered expanding the state's sex offender treatment facilities and whether to protect communities downstream from a proposed Fargo-Moorhead flood diversion project Sunday night.

Legislative leaders want to take up the final version of a public works finance bill this week, starting today in the House. The nearly $1 billion proposal lawmakers were poised to consider is far more than Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants.

Negotiations continued well into the night, highlighted by whether to accept Pawlenty's proposal to spend $89 million to expand sex offender facilities in Moose Lake.

Dennis Benson, executive director of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program, told eight House and Senate conference committee negotiators that $61 million the total 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 the that facility and another in St. Peter house 550. Pawlenty wants the $89 million to 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."

The conference committee was to consider a proposal that would order an extensive study about the needs for more facilities and, more basically, whether existing sex offender laws should be changed. Supporters of the sex offender facility addition feared the study could delay the expansion.

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.

Davis reports for Forum Communications Co.