Legislature passes funding for AG Ellison to hire prosecutors

Keith Ellison speaks
Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, pictured at his campaign rally in Oct. 2022, in Minneapolis, has a green light from the House: It allots $4.3 million for his criminal division fund. It is meant to add staff to help prosecute criminal cases around the state and is expected to pass pending Gov. Tim Walz's signature. The bill cleared the Senate last week and is now on its way t
Kerem Yücel | MPR News 2022

The Minnesota House passed a bill Monday providing $4.3 million to add staff to the state attorney general's criminal division over the next few years to help prosecute criminal cases around the state.

The bill cleared the Senate last week and is now on its way to Gov. Tim Walz for his signature.

Supporters say the money will take the unit from three full-time attorneys to 10, plus support staff. Attorney General Keith Ellison has been seeking the funding for years and said his office will be able to assist more counties with complex or high-profile cases that can overwhelm smaller staffs.

“Because if you don't see a murder or a serious felony, like criminal sexual conduct or sex trafficking, human trafficking, if you don't see it, but every four or five years, you never get to build up the experience that you need to do that," Ellison said.

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During debate on the House floor some Republicans said the bill wasn’t clear enough that the money would actually go to hire prosecutors. They suggested it gave Ellison too much leeway to decide how to spend the money.

Others, including Rep. Jim Nash, R-Waconia, said some of the money should also be specifically targeted to root out waste, fraud and abuse in government programs.

"I think that with the Feeding Our Future situation that we've seen where the attorney general failed to properly defend the state, that we want any funding to go after specifically waste fraud and abuse in addition to some of the other criminal proceedings that are going on,” Nash said.

The Feeding Our Future scandal was debated in last year's campaign. Ellison said the state reported its concerns to the FBI and didn't want to get in the way of the federal investigation.

Democrats argued the bill clearly states the money is “for enhanced criminal enforcement and related initiatives,” and was supported by county attorneys from around Minnesota. 

“You have been talking to us the past two years about crime. That’s what this bill does.” Rep. John Huot, DFL-Rosemount said. 

“This is about as straightforward a vote on public safety as you could ask for,” said DFL Majority Leader Jamie Long of Minneapolis. “It is perhaps the most straightforward vote we will be taking this year.”

Several proposed Republican amendments were rejected, and the House passed the bill 73-55.

The House also unanimously passed legislation to expedite sending money to state public defenders to ease caseload burdens and offer more competitive pay.

The House passed the budget for the Board of Public Defense, ahead of the rest of the state’s new budget.

House Judiciary Committee Chair Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said an inadequate public defender system slows down the entire justice system.

“There really are multiple problems with the way things currently are and that we don't have enough public defenders doing the work,” Becker-FInn said before the vote. “We have people doing the work of one person during the work of two or three attorneys. So we need to hire more people. And part of that is making sure that those salaries are more in line with other public attorneys in our system.” 

The bill allocates more than $318 million. By passing it early in the year, lawmakers say the defense board can begin filling positions sooner.