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Bill putting $457 million toward ‘ending systemic racism’ is moving through the Minnesota House

Due to the way the Legislature writes budgets, the bill itself is unlikely to reach a vote on the House floor, but various sections could end up in some of the budget committee bills that surface this session.

Valerie Castile, shown looking at a photo button of her son during a 2016 press conference, spoke in favor of the bill on Friday.
Valerie Castile, shown looking at a photo button of her son during a 2016 press conference, spoke in favor of the bill on Friday.
REUTERS/Eric Miller

A bill that would appropriate $457 million in one-time state funds devoted to “ending systemic racism” is somewhat quietly moving through a series of Minnesota House committees. And while the bill, HF 784, has 17 sponsors, all DFLers, it has also attracted some Republican votes during its two committee stops. 

The bill, whose prime sponsor is Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, makes 12 different appropriations, ranging from $10 million to $80 million, for arts and culture; culturally sensitive health care; housing stability; school counseling and lunch debt forgiveness; urban agriculture; battling recidivism; and fostering police-community relations. School lunch and breakfast debt forgiveness alone would receive $40 million.

Another section would spend $30 million to create five community service centers in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth, St. Cloud and Rochester, all of which would be named for Philando Castille, the African-American man killed by a police officer during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights.

During its second committee stop Friday, Castile’s mother, Valerie Castile, spoke in favor of the bill. “My son Philando started working when he was 13 years old because of a training program designed for African American children in the neighborhood,” she said. “It’s a large bill, yes it is, but it’s designed to address systemic racism. It’s an investment and it will pay off.”

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Thompson, who is in his first term after being elected from St. Paul’s District 67A, was friends with Castile. He called the legislation historic. “This bill targets state appropriations statewide for the African American/African immigrant community to build capacity to address disparities by the poor administration and enforcement of our equal opportunity laws, made worse by the pandemic,” Thompson said.

State Rep. John Thompson
State Rep. John Thompson
The $50 million for “entrepreneurial and business training and technical support” was the subject matter for the House Workforce and Business Development Committee Friday. But other sections of the bill will be heard by other committees over the next few weeks.

The bill itself is unlikely to reach a vote on the House floor, said House Speaker Melissa Hortman. That’s because of the way the Legislature writes budgets. Instead, various sections will be “parceled out” and could end up in as many as six of the 19 budget committee bills that surface next month.

“Making sure our budget has racial justice and equity is not the job of a particular legislator with a particular bill or a particular chair. It’s the job of every single member of the Minnesota House of Representatives,” she said. “Racial justice and equity are high priorities for the [DFL] caucus and we were committed to racial equity before May of last year but our commitment has grown in seriousness and scope.” Hortman’s reference to May is to the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed, both of which focused attention on social and criminal justice issues in Minnesota.

The House convened a select committee on racial justice last year that issued a report in December. It is also trying to implement what are called racial equity notes to assess the equity impacts of policies, akin to the way fiscal notes assess the budgetary impacts of legislation [PDF].

State budgets must be balanced with spending not exceeding forecasted revenues. Minnesota also has policies that a two-year budget can’t be crafted in a way that would cause deficits in the following two-year budget, a requirement sometimes referred to as being “balanced in the tails.”

House Speaker Melissa Hortman
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
House Speaker Melissa Hortman
That matters because many of the planks in Thompson’s bill would implicate future budgets, such as the allocations for health clinics and community centers. The money this year would have to be one-time spending with no guarantee of life beyond the next budget, which expires June 30, 2023. Hortman says her advice to sponsors of new spending is: “Try to get in the bill and live to fight another day.”

Knowing the bill’s different sections could end up in various budget bills partly explains why the language in HF 784 is relatively brief. It appropriates $80 million for housing stability, for example, with one sentence of guidance: “$80,000,000 in fiscal year 2022 is appropriated from the general fund to the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency for grants to African American organizations to: (1) increase available, affordable housing and homeownership; and(2) provide tenant and landlord mediation services in communities throughout the state.”

For services aimed at reducing recidivism, a $50 million appropriation would go to the Department of Corrections commissioner “to provide grants to African American organizations to provide recidivism reduction services for African American ex-inmates returning to their communities.”

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“It seems like we’re throwing a lot of money at a system that is broken without a lot of guidelines, guardrails, requirements or specifications,” said Rep. Keith Franke, R-St. Paul Park, who supported sending the bill to the House Public Safety Committee. “I wonder: How do you think that by just throwing all this one-time money at a situation we are going to get at this egregious situation that needs to be fixed?”

State Rep. Keith Franke
State Rep. Keith Franke
Thompson replied: “How does not investing in my community, not investing in those who are underserved, how does that fix it?”

One opponent spoke before the Workforce and Business Development Committee Friday: Alexander Buster Deputie, an African American small business owner from St. Paul, who was the GOP nominee in 2020 against state Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St Paul. “When you start appropriating general funds for a specific group of people, excluding others, simply based on the color of their skin, that itself is racist,” Deputie said. “That divides us. It does not bring us together.”

The money in the bill is significant in size and scope. Workforce development is not specifically singled out for funding in the Thompson bill, but entrepreneurial and business training is, for $50 million. Just two years ago, equity advocates were happy with a $23.5 million appropriation for workforce development. Before that appropriation, the state has spent $59.3 million beginning in 2016 on a series of grants and payments to nonprofits and local governments to shrink gaps in economic success between people of color and whites in Minnesota.