Minnesota’s rapidly shifting demographic makeup for the first time in years has brought to the State Capitol a comprehensive debate on how to reduce stubbornly persistent racial disparities in housing, education and the labor force.

Gov. Mark Dayton issued a $100 million edict to legislators last week, laying out a legislative agenda aimed at ensuring racial equity. His proposals, if enacted, would provide one-time infusions of capital into business-development programs, youth employment initiatives and down-payment assistance for lower-income first-time home buyers. He also wants more funding for the Department of Human Rights, a state agency that investigates complaints of discrimination in workplaces.

“It’s just the beginning of a very exciting conversation,” said state Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis.

Torres Ray, who in 2006 became the first Hispanic woman elected to the Senate, said Dayton’s proposal has elated state and community leaders who for years have jockeyed for resources to move toward racial equity.

“The economic disparities package that the governor proposed is a very significant proposal,” she said. “We haven’t had these kinds of proposals coming from the executive branch in the history of Minnesota.”

In the months leading up to the unveiling of Dayton’s racial equity agenda, the governor’s office sought input on proposals from community groups such as the Minneapolis NAACP, Northside Funders Group and Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, a north Minneapolis nonprofit. Dayton said it’s important for minority groups to have input on proposals.

“It’s a testament to a lot of the organizing that has happened,” said Anthony Newby of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. “Communities are coming together across age. You see folks in the Black Lives Matter movement, who are often youth in their teens or early 20s, working with anchor organizations like the NAACP or the Urban League that have an older leadership and constituency base. … I’m proud of that organizing effort and frankly [Dayton’s budget proposal] is a testament to the governor, who is willing to listen.”

House, Senate proposals

Senate and House members are working to craft their own proposals. Of the $100 million Dayton has proposed for racial equity, nearly $34 million has been left to be divvied up by legislators.

Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, was appointed chairman of the joint working group that heard hours of testimony for possible legislation early this year when Dayton was pressing for a special legislative session. Knoblach said he is supportive of efforts to expand the Department of Human Rights. The effort would fully fund a satellite office in his district, which has experienced racial tension in recent years as minority populations have grown, attracted to the area because of jobs and low housing costs.

He said he supported some proposals by Senate DFLers, including a job-training program. Republicans have so far offered a proposal to raise education tax credits and expand them to also offset private school tuition, an effort to reduce the state’s achievement gap in education.

Knoblach, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, said the tax credits would offer lower-income families more school choices. Senate DFLers and Dayton, however, have criticized the tax credits, decrying them as a “backdoor voucher” that many say would not work. Low-income families, Senate DFLers said, cannot afford the upfront cost of private school, even with up to $3,500 in refundable tax credits.

Knoblach disagrees, saying he met with Catholic bishops and other private school representatives recently who expressed support for the tax credits. “They wouldn’t be supportive of this if they thought it wouldn’t work,” he said, adding that private schools may be able to cover tuition with financial aid for qualified families.

“I’ve said many times that [a legislative package] has to be more comprehensive,” Knoblach said. “If we can make progress on school choice, we would be very happy to try to get some of these other things, too.”

‘Things we know work’

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said legislators should consider focusing on developing minority-owned businesses that can create much-needed jobs. Those jobs, Hayden said, would help create wealth in money-starved communities. Funding for adult GED programs would also train underemployed residents.

“These are things that we know work,” Hayden said.

Jaime Tincher, Dayton’s chief of staff, said the governor’s agenda reflects his commitment to ensuring the state’s future economic growth. Business groups and others are warning that if racial disparities in education aren’t addressed now, they will stymie the state’s ability to grow and thrive.

“If we do nothing and don’t double down and figure out how to bring everyone into our economy, it’s going to be increasingly challenging for us to maintain our economic position in Minnesota,” Tincher said.

‘Call to action’

Dayton’s new focus on the issue came last fall with a census report showing a rise in poverty for black Minnesotans from 2013 to 2014, a trend not seen in other racial groups. Tincher said the state was already working on diversity and inclusion initiatives, but that “when the census data came out, it was almost jarring … it was very much a call to action.”

Some legislators and community leaders said Dayton’s one-time spending proposals are a start, but they said they would like to see a longer-term commitment to ongoing funding, in addition to other systemic changes.

Tawanna Black, executive director of the Northside Funders Group, said state agencies should prioritize racial equity in their respective areas and funding should also be targeted.

Newby, with Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, said Dayton could go further, lending his support to other policy fights such as restoring voting rights to felons out on probation or parole. “We think more people deserve access to democracy,” Newby said. Dayton could “use his position in the state to advocate for some of these policies.”