More pandemic relief, criminal justice reform, money for new transit among their top requests.

Both Ramsey County and the Saint Paul Public Schools will be lobbying the Minnesota Legislature this year for additional funds to address the added costs and reduced revenue resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the 2021 legislative agendas reviewed by the County Board and School Board in the past month.

Governor Tim Walz is expected to submit his proposed budget for the 2021-23 biennium in February using the state budget forecast from November 2020 as a base. The fiscal challenges will be great, local officials agree. Though a state surplus of $641 million is projected for the current biennium ending June 30, a deficit of $1.27 billion is expected for the following two years. However, the outlook could change with the release of the next state budget forecast in February.

Ramsey County’s 12-page legislative agenda includes a request for ongoing pandemic support. This involves more money for community education, COVID-19 case investigation and contact tracing, COVID tests and the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

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Criminal justice is another focus of the agenda. Ramsey County supports legislation proposed by the People of Color and Indigenous Caucus to reform the investigation and prosecution of officer-involved deaths and wrongful actions, to increase police accountability and transparency, to raise standards of police conduct and to rebuild the local community’s trust in police forces.

“Criminal records and the collateral consequences long after people have fulfilled their obligations to the justice system serve as barriers to jobs, housing, education and more, preventing people from serving as productive members of our community,” the county’s legislative agenda states.

Ramsey County is calling for efforts to reduce the possible harm to offenders from strict penalties for lower-level crimes. Among the proposals is more flexibility in waiving criminal fines and the suspension of drivers’ licenses for failure to pay fines. Another proposal is to enable prosecutors to initiate motions to reduce a criminal’s sentence based on his or her success in rehabilitation programs or abiding by the conditions of supervised release.

The county is also requesting reforms to the cash bail process to include a new risk assessment tool and to release individuals back into society if they are determined not to be a risk. There is also a call for legislation to automate the process of sealing a person’s criminal record for low-level felonies and lesser crimes following a specific waiting period.

“Criminal records and the collateral consequences long after people have fulfilled their obligations to the justice system serve as barriers to jobs, housing, education and more, preventing people from serving as productive members of our community,” the county’s legislative agenda states.

Other county priorities for the current legislative session include better access to health care, more support for mental health services, more support for programs serving children and families, and more funding for transportation projects. Although 2021 is not a bonding session, Ramsey County has three bonding requests—$40 million to build a pedestrian deck overlooking the Mississippi River along Kellogg Boulevard, $2.5 million for Rush Line bus rapid transit and $2.5 million for ongoing transit studies in the Riverview Corridor between downtown Saint Paul and Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport.

Saint Paul Public Schools priorities

Both the Ramsey County Board and the Saint Paul School Board are seeking a reduction in state government mandates that add costs and complexities to their operations.

The Saint Paul Public Schools will be seeking more funds from the state to address the effects of the pandemic, including the added costs of providing student transportation and school lunch and a drop in enrollment and the resulting reduction in state per-pupil aid.

The school district is also seeking legislation to promote the racial diversity of teachers, provide more mental health services for students, fully fund early childhood screening mandates, and provide more resources to stabilize families and serve homeless students.

— Jane McClure

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