REGIONAL- “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The spirit embodied in that famous …
REGIONAL- “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
The spirit embodied in that famous quote by cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead played out last week for a small corner of the world, the people and communities of the Togo and Willow River state correctional facilities, as the Minnesota Legislature came through with $7.5 million to avert their impending closures.
Concerted lobbying efforts by the staff of MCF-Togo, their union, AFSCME Council 5 – Duluth, and community members began immediately in August after state Department of Corrections Commissioner Paul Schnell announced that the facility would be shut down to help close a projected $14 million departmental budget shortfall. Layoff notices went out Oct. 1, and a mid-November graduation for Togo’s unique Challenge Incarceration Program would have been its last. The facility would have been closed for good in early December, putting more than 60 full and part-time employees out of work in an area already hard-hit by the pandemic economic downturn. MCF-Willow River would have closed in January.
But the facilities would not go down without a fight. Nearly 500 joined a Facebook group set up to facilitate communication about advocacy efforts and provide support. Two rallies for Togo were held in Nashwauk, with Schnell attending the first to explain his decision and offer his support for supplemental funding. The city of Bigfork hosted an interactive watch site for a House committee virtual meeting in September where employees and supporters offered testimony on behalf of the endangered facilities. People bombarded legislators and aides with phone calls and emails, and local legislators took up the cause, chief among them District 6A Rep. Julie Sandstede (DFL-Hibbing).
“It was very unique in my experience,” Sandstede said on Tuesday. “The communities, the surrounding communities, legislators, the warden, workers, we had such a robust presence and a broad representation of voices that all spoke to this, resoundingly saying ‘No.’ And that we were able to hear that in government, that is just so refreshing to me. Honestly, I think it’s wonderful.”
Schnell, who had unsuccessfully asked for supplemental funding during the regular legislative session last spring, praised the advocacy efforts in a letter sent to Togo and Willow River staff last week.
“Just a quick note to extend my gratitude to all of you for your efforts and advocacy on behalf of the CIP programs at Togo and Willow River,” Schnell wrote. “It’s clear to me, that final passage of the DOC’s supplemental budget request was based on a number of critical factors: the quality of the services you provide, your obvious commitment to your work, your vocal advocacy for your programs, and the unwavering support of local legislators and members of the local communities. I will always remember the outpouring of community support for you and the programs you operate during the rally events in Nashwauk and Willow River. It’s not often that communities become so mobilized around the importance of correctional programs, and it’s not lost on me that the community support and turnout is because of you and your programs’ demonstration of the potential for transformation of the lives of the people we serve. I want to thank all of you for your honesty and willingness to engage during my visits to both facility sites, and the Tele-Town Hall calls. As I’ve said during my visits and will repeat again, I’m sorry for all the stress and pain this situation created for you and your families.”
Indicative of the support generated for Togo and Willow River were eight bills, five in the House and three in the Senate, that were introduced shortly after the Legislature convened its special session on Oct. 12.
The primary legislative thrust would be to include $7.5 million in House File 1, referred to somewhat inaccurately as the “bonding bill” for its $1.36 billion list of statewide capital improvement projects. Working “every single day since Aug. 3” with Schnell and others, Sandstede said they determined that $7.5 million would be sufficient because of cuts already made and extra coronavirus funding that had been received.
“There was a tax provision portion of that bill, and then there was also the supplemental budget,” Sandstede said. “The supplemental portion is where we needed to get the money for Togo and Willow River. I had personally introduced other bills specific to just Togo and Willow River, knowing if the bonding bill went down, knowing if a supplemental portion of the bill went down, I still had to have the bases covered somewhere else.”
The money was included in HF 1 but was designated generally for the Department of Corrections. Not willing to depend on past promises, Sandstede offered an amendment specifying Togo and Willow River that took some wrangling to get through, as it was initially attached to another bill.
“I had to fight like a dog to get it,” she said. “We’ve seen it happen all too often where people’s recollection of what was really agreed upon and really said isn’t always as you may recall it. That’s why it just it had to be there. It was willingness on the part of leadership to allow me to do that, it was working across the aisle, but it really took some absolute determination and grit to just say, ‘I’m not backing down. This has to be.’”
With the amendment in place, all 75 House DFL members and 25 House Republicans provided the three-fifths “super majority” needed to pass the bill. The Republican-controlled Senate passed the bill 64-3 the next day. The positive reaction has been overwhelming, Sandstede said.
“My email, my Facebook, my private messenger, all of that has just been jam packed full of people thanking me,” she said. ”There’s been such an outpouring of thanks, appreciation, gratitude, so heartfelt and sincere. They have hope again.”
The money will be sufficient to keep Togo and Willow River operating through June 30, but advocates may well find themselves back at it again in the spring. The state is facing a multi-billion-dollar shortfall for the next two-year budget cycle.
“Without a doubt, the Department of Corrections is going to have to address their budget and they will be facing budget cuts, more than likely,” Sandstede said. “Could Togo be part of that? At this point, nothing is off the table. However, we’re really kind of out in front of the issue by making the case that we did for Togo and Willow River. That doesn’t mean our work is done. [This has] bought us some time to start looking at overall budgets before we have to send them, looking at what cuts are beneficial and what is pennywise and pound foolish, which is what I believe cutting Togo and Willow River CIP programs is.”