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DFL lawmakers wanted a state budget focused on racial equity issues. Did they get it?

Rep. Rena Moran said she thought the DFL “did pretty darn good” on equity issues in 2021 considering the Minnesota Legislature divides power between a DFL-controlled House and a GOP-controlled Senate.

House Speaker Melissa Hortman shown at a May 17, 2021, press conference.
House Speaker Melissa Hortman said early in the 2021 session that equity and racial justice isn’t the job of any one legislator — or any one committee — but of the entire DFL caucus.
It was a breathtaking amount of money, even in a state that spends $2 billion a month.

A single bill introduced during the 2021 legislative session by freshman Rep. John Thompson would have appropriated $457 million for a variety of new programs with the goal of “ending systemic racism.” Twelve different appropriations, ranging from $10 million to $80 million, would be spent for housing stability, culturally sensitive health care, school counseling, school lunch debt forgiveness and fostering police-community relations.

The bill had several strikes against it: It was a lot of money; it funded programs that came with very little description or definition, including new programs that would carry even higher price tags in future budget periods; and it was introduced by a DFL lawmaker from St. Paul who was disfavored by the Senate majority GOP. The latter was a holdover from Thompson’s role in an August 2020 demonstration outside the Hugo home of then-Minneapolis police union head Bob Kroll.

Yet some of the ideas contained in the Thompson bill did make it into the dozen omnibus spending measures approved in June, likely despite Thompson’s advocacy. And while lacking specifics, the spending priorities in HF 784 matched the pledges made by Gov. Tim Walz and DFL legislators to put money behind their rhetoric on racial equity in Minnesota.

State Rep. John Thompson, DFL-St. Paul, said at a press conference Walz needed to “show some testicular fortitude” and was giving Black lawmakers and their constituents “lip service” rather than leadership in cutting a deal with Senate Republicans.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
A single bill introduced during the 2021 legislative session by freshman Rep. John Thompson would have appropriated $457 million for a variety of new programs with the goal of “ending systemic racism.”

Equity efforts ‘baked in the batter’

House Speaker Melissa Hortman said early in the 2021 session that equity and racial justice isn’t the job of any one legislator — or any one committee — but of the entire DFL caucus, and her decision to make Rep. Rena Moran chair of the House Ways and Means committee was intended to make equity a focus of the budget. Moran had just completed the report of the House Select Committee on Racial Justice and wanted to incorporate its findings in the budget.

“My intention when I made her the chair of Ways and Means was that in every bill and every budget conversation, we had better be able to answer the question. ‘Yeah. What are we doing to get that equity?’” Hortman said last week. 

But the use of the word “equity” sometimes made negotiations with Senate Republicans more difficult, Walz and Moran both said. “Senate negotiators made it very clear to me that they would not sign anything with the word equity in it,” Walz said. “I told them I know where a thesaurus is and we’ll work together to figure out something.”

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Moran said her spending committee chairs were trying to write budgets “through an equity lens” but encountered “huge pushback” from their Senate counterparts.

State Rep. Rena Moran
State Rep. Rena Moran
“They didn’t want to view the world through an equity lens, did not want us to use that word ‘equity’ as we went into negotiations,” Moran said. “At the end of the day, we don’t have to say the word ‘equity’ to say we want every family to be strong and healthy or this is a good investment. There are many other words we can use.”

Yet Hortman also said that some Republican leaders were willing to consider some DFL budget items. “On some things, Republicans came to the table ready to deal because they know it’s their Achilles heel and they know that they look like they don’t care about communities of color often,” Hortman said. “And so there was a willingness to counteract that perception and to take some actions  to help fund equity expenditures.”

Senate Finance Committee Chair Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she was surprised when she heard the comments from Walz and Moran about negotiations on equity provisions. “I’m not sure why they would be saying that because clearly we talked about equity all the time,” Rosen said. “We took it very seriously. You could look back to any hearing, whether it was education or (health and human services) or the jobs committee. We have a very thorough list of programs that we were supporting and probably even instigated that dealt with equity.”

State Sen. Julie Rosen
She said she knew funding for programs aimed at boosting outcomes for people of color in the state were “baked into the batter” of the DFL positions. Rosen, however, said some programs were endorsed by GOP members, mentioning the promotion of teachers of color and the Black Men Teach program as two examples as well as job training programs in the jobs bill.

The Fairmont Republican did agree that many in her caucus feel the term “equity” is overused, that “there’s a fatigue on the word” and she said sometimes objections were to programs that spent money in Minneapolis and St. Paul to the exclusion of other parts of Minnesota. “You have to look to Worthington or Duluth or St. Cloud or Rochester; everybody had issues, even in the small communities,” Rosen said. “There’s challenges all around the state.”

Money for ending ‘lunch shaming,’ expanding violence prevention efforts

Moran said she thought the DFL “did pretty darn good” on equity issues considering the Minnesota Legislature divides power between a DFL House and a GOP Senate. “We are dealt the hands that we are dealt,” the St. Paul DFLer said. “Neither side will get all they want nor will we get all the investment we want to move the needle on racial equity.”

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One significant spending item can be traced back to Thompson’s bill. The education omnibus ended what is termed “lunch shaming” — denying school meals to students with debt or providing only basic meals that identify them as owing money to the lunchroom. Ending the practice and paying off lunch debt was one of the responses to the shooting death of Philando Castille during a 2016 traffic stop in Falcon Heights. Castille, who worked in a public school, was a close friend of Thompson.

Another equity focused initiative is a new spending program called innovations in community safety, a form of which was proposed in HF 784. While it does not appear in a budget bill, Hortman and Walz worked out an agreement by which Walz would use at least $5 million from the $500 million in American Rescue Plan to make grants to small nonprofits that work in neighborhoods to resolve conflicts and to help families of victims of violence. Such funding had been proposed before but had not previously found its way into budgets

Hortman said she pushed for a larger share of the ARP money to be in Walz’s hands — without the need for legislative ratification — because she saw it as a way to get past Senate GOP objections to programs that carried the label “equity.”

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“I knew that at the end of the day we could do things for equity with that money that we wouldn’t be able to convince the Republicans to do,” Hortman said. Another death knell would have been any connection to Thompson, she said.

“We had to make sure that the Senate did not know that the innovations in community safety came out of House File 784,” Hortman said. “We actively did not talk about that.”

Thompson is now in the midst of a controversy that started with an early July traffic stop in St. Paul and has led to widespread calls for his resignation over domestic violence accusations. He has said he won’t resign, but his influence over legislation, already minor, has disappeared. 

Other equity efforts funded

Both Hortman and the Walz administration pointed to dozens of other expenditures [PDF] they consider equity investments. Among them are:

  • Girls in action, a program to reduce negative behavior among female students  through mentorship
  • Grow your own teacher training to increase teachers of color
  • Training to reduce racial disparities in student discipline
  • Air monitoring in communities impacted by pollution as part of an environmental justice push
  • No Child Left Inside, a program to encourage low-income children to become active in natural resources based activities
  • A $435 one-time payment to those in the Minnesota Family Investment Program, as well as a monthly rate increase
  • New efforts to help families facing the loss of children to foster care to stay together
  • An increase in Child Care Assistance Program payments
  • $28.5 million for grants to community nonprofit organizations
  • $25 million for homelessness prevention
  • Increased funding for low-income dental care
  • Support for college students of color training to be teachers
  • Support for aspiring American Indian teachers
  • $100 million in housing infrastructure bonds
  • $80 million for grants to businesses damaged in 2020 riots
  • A $10 million set-aside from COVID business relief aide for minority-owned businesses, including $18 million for business of six or fewer employees; and $3 million for cultural malls
  • $86 million in worker development funds aimed at training low-income and disadvantaged workers
  • $10 million in technical assistance for small businesses through programs such as the Neighborhood Development Center and African Economic Development Solutions
  • $5 million in the Legacy Amendment spending plan to teach the art, culture and heritage of diverse Minnesota communities
  • Funding for offices of missing and murdered Indigenous people and missing and murdered African-American women
  • Expansion of the Working Family Tax Credit
  • Funding to begin planning for a land bridge over I-94 in the historic Black community of Rondo in St. Paul

Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan took the lead in the Walz administration on equity issues in the budget. “I know that when we as Minnesotans all across the state from every political party are able to talk about equity and to truly do the work to face these gaps we will make even more progress,” she said. 

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Flanagan also attributed success on issues facing communities of color to the increased diversity of elected members of the House and Senate. “When our democracy more accurately reflects the communities it needs to represent, we get better outcomes,” Flanagan said.

Even though Thompson’s bill wasn’t a factor in the budget, Moran said it played a role in calling attention to issues facing communities of color, especially Black communities. “A lot of times, because the needs are so great in our communities, a big part is just introducing those needs in a legislative body which would not have heard of it if we had not been there,” she said of legislators of color like Thompson.