Local traffic diversion programs deemed illegal by state auditor, again

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Driver safety courses being offered by authorities across Minnesota appear to be a win-win for drivers and local governments: the classes, which won't appear on a driver's record, are a less-expensive alternative to receiving a ticket for minor traffic violations and fees collected from participants generate a good chunk of revenue.

Minnesota Public Radio points out just one problem. They're illegal.

That's according to a new report from Minnesota State Auditor Rebecca Otto who has been reiterating the illegality of city- and county-run "diversion programs" for the last several years.

Otto told MPR that there's no state law authorizing local governments to set their own driving regulations.

"We don't want somebody with bad driving behaviors to be able to participate in diversion programs around the state and nobody knows how many they've participated in," she said.

In 2009, both Otto and Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said the programs violate the state's administrative citation statute. Swanson has been calling for a court determination since 2003.

Several Minnesota county sheriffs' departments maintain the law is unclear. Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh, who has been offering a safe driving class for the last decade, told MPR that the state's issue with the program is not violating the law, he says it's about money.

In most cases, 100 percent of funds collected from the classes go back into the pockets of the sheriffs' offices instead of a cut going to the state. MPR says the state typically gets a third of the money from traffic tickets.

So, how do the diversion programs continue to operate in at least 15 Minnesota counties?

Until the law is clarified, there's not much that can be done.

State Sen. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, and state Rep. Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, plan to introduce new legislation next session to settle the controversy after previous attempts to clarify the law in the Legislature have been unsuccessful.

Swanson has maintained she doesn't have the authority to shut down the practice, however a KSTP legal analysis says otherwise.

A four-person group called the Association for Government Accountability filed a lawsuit in August that claims Bartsch is “intentionally ignoring state law” by offering the courses.

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