New support bolsters racial disparities bills, but opposition looms

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K.B. Brown is a father of two, engaged to be married, a lifelong Minneapolitan and co-owner of a small business in Northeast called Wolf Pack Promotionals. He dreams of being the largest promotional printer in the state and of starting a youth internship program in the Twin Cities. Along with everything else, he advocates for small business owners.

“My vision for this business is to be the No. 1 printer for the nonprofits and small businesses in the state. I’ll start with the state. The country? I’d be okay with that. But I’ll start with the state. Let’s affect my community first. I believe change is beautiful, I believe change can happen and will happen, but I believe it starts with my community first, everyone else second,” Brown said.

He, and thousands of people like him, are hoping the Minnesota Legislature takes real action this year on Minnesota’s startling racial and economic disparities. At the same time, community groups are working to develop policies, frameworks and priorities that center racial justice as their core objective for the legislature to address.

 

Small business owner KB Wolf stands among the display of his Central Avenue store, Wolf Pack Promotionals. Photo by Cristeta Boarini.

Small business owner K.B. Brown stands among the display of his Central Avenue store, Wolf Pack Promotionals. Photo by Cristeta Boarini.

 

One of Brown’s priorities: developing small businesses owned by communities of color and in communities of color.

“I would like to see a clear and concise effort to get minority businesses moving and flowing,” he said. “That is the only way we can affect our community. If there is a community with no small businesses owned by your kind, that’s not your community. You’re a guest in that community.”

Supporting minority-owned small businesses is one of many issues legislators, community organizers and concerned citizens are trying to push this legislative session in an attempt to address Minnesota’s gaping racial disparities.

One such group pushing for action on disparities from the state legislature is Voices for Racial Justice (VRJ). They released their Equity Agenda 2016 report on March 10 during a rally held near the state Capitol.

“The equity agenda is a space for debate, reflection, and action, which centers and celebrates race,” Brett Grant, director of research and policy for VRJ, said. The agenda is designed to draw the attention of Minnesotans, including state legislators, to much needed initiatives that will build justice in Minnesota.

 

Equity Agenda 1

 

The equity agenda calls for community and legislative action on a number of issues including access to affordable early childhood education, healthcare coverage for undocumented families, driver’s licenses for all, eliminating the use of grand juries in cases which involve killing by police and stopping prison expansion.

“If you see our surplus, you would assume our state is doing well,” said Neeraj Mehta, director of community programs at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

However, Mehta said Minnesota not only could be doing much better, it needs to be doing much better. This fact is shown in the report “Minnesota’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model,” which said Minnesota’s gross domestic product would have been $16.4 billion higher in 2011 if the state had had no racial disparities.

Minnesota’s disparities have the attention of Gov. Mark Dayton, who made a point to discuss racial and economic disparities in his 2016 State of the State – a stark contrast to his 2015 State of the State, where such initiatives were only mentioned in passing.

“We must also show our leadership by acting now to reduce the economic and other disparities in our state based upon race, religion, nationality or disability status. We cannot resolve these disparities in one legislative session, but we must begin now,” Dayton said.

 

Equity Agenda MN Legislative Session 2016

 

With 2016’s quick 10-week legislative session underway at the state capitol, Dayton has proposed a supplemental budget which focuses on economic initiatives to close Minnesota’s racial and economic disparities; he is asking for community input.

Racial and economic disparities also have the attention of the state legislature. Minnesota legislators are proposing a number of bills this session, including the disparity impact analysis, grant support for minority-owned small businesses and an expansion of the education-based tax credit, amongst others.

“These three bills reflect three areas that community groups have been engaging with the political system: building up one of the best engines for economic growth in Minnesota—minority business development; holding the system accountable to deliver on outcomes; and effective strategies to close the achievement gap,” said Bruce Corrie, a professor of economics at Concordia University-St. Paul. He is also the author of a recently-released report “ALANA Political Power: Strong Growth in House and Senate Districts 2012-14.”

 

Disparate Impact

Sen. Jeff Hayden (DFL-Minneapolis) hopes to use disparate impact notes as a means of keeping government accountable Minnesota’s most disenfranchised communities. He is the author of a bill, SF 2054, which promotes the use of a disparity impact analysis on legislation as chosen by a committee chair or ranking member of the legislature.

“As we look at policy, we should ask ourselves the question, what impact will this have on communities of color, what impact will this have on moving communities of color forward?” said Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (DFL-Minneapolis)

Hayden’s bill was introduced in April 2015, but it has not yet entered committee, nor has a fiscal analysis been requested for it. Rep. Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) is the author of SF 2054’s companion, HF 2198, and on March 14, he introduced HF 3025. The legislative language of HF 3025, as of March 15, notes that if the bill were passed as is, a program could not be implemented through a state agency if the program would increase Minnesota’s racial and economic disparities. The bill also states the commissioner of human rights must present to any legislative committees focused on government processes an analysis of the disparate impact note’s usage during the previous year.

If HF 3025 legislation passed as is, this would have to occur before Feb. 15 annually. Further, the bill also says that state agencies must give a report to the commissioner of human rights twice a year on any and all actions taken to ensure their work does not increase Minnesota’s disparities. HF 3025 is currently in the Government Operations and Elections Policy committee in the state House.

As VRJ’s report card reads, “To reduce inequities that communities of color face in Minnesota, the legislature should incorporate an equity impact assessment on bills debated within legislative committees. This assessment would include an explanation that clearly documents the assumptions made when conclusions are reached as to a bill’s impact on racial and ethnic communities. Minnesota should work to promote equity and end disparities in all sectors by supporting equity impact notes.”

According to VRJ’s Racial Equity Impact Assessment (REIA), a tool provided alongside their equity agenda, REIA should do three things: make sure communities are justly represented during decision-making processes, work with community leaders to engage their own communities in policy work, and ensure that the racial equity analysis is grounded in communities’ lived experiences. They urge policymakers to use the racial equity impact assessment in order to ensure that equity remains a core to all legislation, even if that legislation appears not to exacerbate racial disparities.

Assessments like these ask who is most impacted by a proposed policy, what and if a disparity is being addressed, how a proposal might build equity, what are the potential negative impacts and whether or not a proposed policy can be successful over the long term.

 

Voices for Racial Justice

Hundreds of people attended VRJ’s March 10 rally at Christ on Capitol Hill Church in St. Paul. Photo by Nicolette Rykhus.

 

 

Hayden and Champion’s proposal would not be the first time that a disparity impact analysis has been used at the Minnesota State Legislature. In 2007, Minnesota was the first state to begin using a disparity impact analysis through the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission (MSGC), an 11-member body which determines prison sentencing standards for the entire state and works to make sure that individual sentencing is not determined by race, class or similar factors. Minnesota was the first state in the nation to adopt this practice, though Iowa was the first state to pass legislation recommending the use of disparity impact notes.

Rep. Rena Moran (DFL-St. Paul) is the chief author for bill HF 1610, which would require that the MSGC complete a racial impact screening of any legislation related to criminal justice.

 

Supporting Small Businesses

Champion is the author of SF 2005, which would appropriate funding towards minority-owned small businesses as a match to federal grants. Thissen and Rep. Linda Slocum (DFL-Minneapolis) are the authors of its House companion, HF 2168. Moran has also authored legislation, HF 3099, which would provide start-up and expansion loan funding to businesses owned by women of color in Ramsey County. There is not yet a Senate companion to Moran’s bill.

Champion’s bill was introduced during the last legislative session and is projected to cost $1 million: $500,000 for 2016 and 2017 in funding for these small businesses.

For business owners like Brown, even just $40,000 would be enough to put his business on the path to success.

“That would allow us to grab a couple pieces of equipment that would streamline our business,” he said. “It would allow us to take care of some of the rent obligations that we have since we’re behind right now. It would allow us to do some marketing, whether it be radio, newspaper, so on and so forth. [That amount of money] would be more than sufficient for us. And we never take over what we need. We’re just not that group of people.”

However, Wolf is concerned that the same gateway companies that control the money going to minority-owned businesses now would control this proposed legislative funding if the bill were to pass.

“I grew up in Minneapolis. Broadway, Lake Street, Plymouth, Nicollet, all had black-owned businesses as I was growing up. Now, all of a sudden, there’s none. And that should be a clear indicator to city officials, state officials, the legislature and everyone else that they have to focus on what’s happening to the money being given for minority businesses, black-owned businesses,” Brown said.

 

Education Equity

Both community groups and legislators are working to fix the many disparities in Minnesota’s education system. The GOP had proposed an education-based tax credit, much to the dismay of DFL legislators, who had proposed their own series of proposals during a meeting of the Legislative Working Group on Economic Disparities co-chaired by Champion and Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud). Groups like VRJ want to see more training available for teachers of color, accessible and affordable early childcare education, and a promotion of the “Solutions, not Suspension” campaign.

“The reality is the system is failing us. The burden of that failure is on our families,” said Christopher Melendez. Melendez is a community organizer from East St. Paul who spoke at the VRJ rally and organizes for education equity. He was joined by more than a dozen young leaders from East St. Paul who also organize in and around their schools.

The disagreement over the tax credit was one barrier to the 2016 special session that never was. It was proposed in January of this year during a working group meeting. Knoblach estimates it would cost in the $35 to $40 million range. The education-based tax credit was a counter-proposal to Champion’s series of proposals which was estimated to total around $36.5 million, said Knoblach.

“I think there are some good ideas there, some of them have some promise, but there was nothing proposed that dealt with education, specifically, dealing with the achievement gap. But we really feel that is an important part of the problem we still need to deal with,” Knoblach said.

However, Champion argues that a focus on “school choice” ignores families and parents, who also need legislative support to get out of poverty.

“Listen, when you’re on a plane, the first thing the stewardess tells you when they are doing the demonstration is in the event that this cabin loses air pressure, the mask will deploy and, even if you’re traveling with a small child, what are you supposed to do? Put it on yourself first. That child has a better chance of succeeding if you are alive and using your experience and strength and insight in order to lead them to safety,” Champion said.

Knoblach, however, believes there is agreement to be had regarding the tax credit.

“We’re open to ideas and hopefully we’ll be able to come up with some sort of compromise on it,” he said.

VRJ’s equity agenda calls for key investments by the state for affordable child care, early childhood education, and more teachers of color and American Indian teachers in Minnesota schools. As part of this action, they recommend the expansion of the Minnesota Child Care Assistance Program, which would allow low-income families of color to access potential discounts on child care for parents working or looking for work.

VRJ is also urging the state Legislature to take action on closing the achievement gap for American Indian students. In order to do this, they would like to see culturally-relevant curriculum in Minnesota schools as well as continued funding for “language revitalization of Dakota and Ojibwe Languages.”

 

Equity Agenda 2

 

The achievement and opportunity gaps were another focus in this year’s State of the State.

“It’s time we stopped holding our schools and educators solely responsible for closing our state’s opportunity and achievement gaps. Every facet of our society has a part to play. All of us share that responsibility,” Dayton said.

Dayton’s focus is closing the achievement gap before it has the chance to appear, beginning with the earliest years of child development.

“If we don’t prevent achievement gaps before they appear, or close them quickly hereafter, they will require much more difficult and more expensive remedial efforts for years following,” Dayton said.

 

Agreeing to Disagree

Champion believes that with a Republican-led house and the election season underway, major progress cannot be assumed with these initiatives. However, Champion and Hayden are urging Minnesotans to get out and vote this election season in the hopes that these and other proposals can be voted on in the upcoming biennium.

“The likelihood of them passing is probably not good, but I don’t think that’s a reason for us not to push an issue,” Hayden said.

According to Champion, Minnesotans can expect a number of new proposals this year from many legislators including Sen. Foung Hawj (DFL-St. Paul) and Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray (DFL-Minneapolis).

However, Champion notes that the inability to agree on a special session and the proposal for  education-based tax credit by GOP legislators does not bode well for the regular legislative session.

“I don’t think much will be done and, if nothing is done, then shame on them and shame on us,” Champion said.

Dayton also called for action by the Minnesota Legislature during his State of the State saying, “Sixty-thousand Minnesota 4-year-olds need Minnesota’s grown-ups to go beyond their big self-interests and place those little interests first.”

Community leaders like VRJ executive director Vina Kay think that work can be done and should be done with two months left in the session.

“I think it is important to stop and think across party line, what is it that we agree on. I would say that it is pretty safe to assume that we as Minnesotans agree that the racial disparities this state faces, some of the worst in the country in education, in unemployment, in health disparities, all those are nothing to be proud of. So if we agree on that, then let’s sit down together to figure out how do we address that,” Kay said.

These initiatives need public support in order to pass. You can contact your legislators and urge them to take immediate action on racial and economic disparities this legislative session, which is scheduled to end by May 23. Find who represents you and their contact information here. Dayton can be contacted at 651-201-3400.

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