The 2010 legislative session has been especially busy this year between big budget challenges, pending elections for state and federal offices, difficult solutions for problems like General Assistance Medical Care (GAMC), and the usual range of expected and unexpected issues that demand the attention of lawmakers.
The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MNCASA) has been an active participant in the legislative process and although many of our 2010 action agenda initiatives have not advanced, we have engaged in some important discussions at the state capitol this year and expect several of them to continue in the 2011 session. Policy change is often a long-term endeavor, with periods of high-activity and waiting for the right opportunity.
The MNCASA action agenda has three areas of focus: 1) Establishing Primary Prevention as a Minnesota Priority; 2) Assuring Access to Assault Victim Services; and 3) Assuring Access to Justice.
Prevention took precedence this year as MNCASA focused on “clean hotels” legislation that would require state agencies to create a preference for booking taxpayer-funded meetings, conferences and events at sites that do not offer pay-per-view pornography. The legislation, sponsored by Senator Tarryl Clark and Representative Larry Hawes (both DFL lawmakers from the St. Cloud area), did not create a mandate – state agencies could consider cost and geographic limitations when making a decision about a facility. The Senate bill progressed through the Senate State and Local Government Operations and Oversight committee but the House version failed to pass the House State and Local Government Operations Reform committee and thus the legislation is done for this year. Still, the “clean hotels” bills generated a great deal of local and national media attention (some more accurate than others!), as well as provocative conversation at the capitol, and raised awareness about sexual violence as a public health issue through discussions about the role of violent pornography in the normalization of sexual harm.
MNCASA also participated in the discussion about comprehensive sexual health education. This year’s legislation – sponsored by Senator Sandy Pappas (DFL from St. Paul) and Representative Frank Hornstein (DFL from Minneapolis) – included sexual violence prevention for the first time and MNCASA Executive Director Donna Dunn testified in both House and the Senate committees about the importance of education about healthy sexuality as a sexual violence prevention tool. The legislation is not expected to pass, however, as it has been consistently vetoed by the governor or held back in either the committee or negotiating process over the years, but MNCASA and our allies in the Coalition for Responsible Sex Education remain hopeful that this important initiative will one day become law.
As always, MNCASA carefully monitored funding for sexual assault victim service programs. With nearly every program in state government experiencing some sort of cut, we expected that the advocacy programs would not be spared even though Governor Pawlenty and the Senate had recommended no cuts. The House recommended a three percent cut. After conference committee negotiations, the cut was lowered to one and a half percent for the remainder of the biennium. We know, however, that the funding issue will be more challenging than ever next year as early budget forecasts point toward a significant deficit. It is now more important than ever that sexual assault victim service programs engage with local lawmakers in order to enlist their help in minimizing funding cuts next year.
The Access to Justice section of the MNCASA action agenda usually involves changes to the criminal sexual conduct and related statutes. In recent years, however, it has been difficult to pursue these legislative changes because they have a “fiscal impact,” meaning they create costs for the system including increased prison beds and offender monitoring. MNCASA did, however, follow several bills that impact victims of criminal sexual conduct including the governor’s proposal to double sentences for first degree offenders. Although MNCASA did not formally oppose the bill we did raise several concerns about balancing the intervention response (including paying attention to all levels of sex offenders, not just the “worst of the worst”) and the lack of concurrent focus on prevention. Overall this session there has been a greater interest by the legislature in closely considering the financial impact of sex offender treatment and incarceration in this state. The Office of the Legislative Auditor is undertaking a review of the Minnesota Sex Offender Program that will be completed by the 2011 session. MNCASA hopes to play a role in all of these discussions to look at the efficacy of the criminal sexual conduct statutes as a whole and how intervention and prevention responses can be better mobilized toward improving offender accountability and protecting victim rights.
Finally, MNCASA often partners with other organizations on legislative initiatives and this year we supported the efforts of the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women to create stricter data practices protections for sexual assault and domestic violence program employees and volunteers as well as make clarifications to the harassment and stalking statute. These bills were folded into comprehensive domestic violence omnibus legislation that appears poised to become law before the end of the session. MNCASA also worked with several organizations in a coalition led by Family and Children’s Services and the City of Minneapolis to make important changes to the prostitution statutes that will assist with data collection and comply with federal directives. Although the bill did not advance this session, it also did not encounter any opposition, and is expected to pass in 2011.
Written by Caroline Palmer, Staff Attorney with the MN Coalition Against Sexual Assault.