Two years ago, the Mall of America Abercrombie & Fitch store was fined $115,000 for discriminating against a disabled teen. The store had refused to let an autistic girl's sister help her dress in a fitting room.

And just last year, the out-of-state Ziplocal company paid $75,000 to settle an age discrimination complaint filed by a Minnesota employee. The local man, a traveling salesman for the company, found that younger employees' work expenses were paid while his were not. State investigators learned that the company's regional director was on a campaign to "get rid of the old coots.''

Both cases were handled by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and helped send important antidiscrimination messages.

Yet despite the agency's successes and still-needed mission, it is on the budget chopping block. Before the end of the session last month, the Legislature approved defunding the department by 65 percent, a move that would quadruple wait times and nearly eliminate the agency.

Lawmakers who recommend the draconian cut say discrimination cases could be handled by either the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or city departments of human rights.

But there are only two Minnesota cities -- St. Paul and Minneapolis -- with departments that handle claims, and they're limited to cases within their municipal limits. About two-thirds of the complaints the state department receives come from suburban and outstate residents.

In addition, the federal EEOC only reviews employment cases. By contrast, Minnesota law that created the state department gave it broader authority to handle discrimination claims in such areas as health care, education, lending practices and housing.

If sent to the federal agency, Minnesota cases would be relegated to the end of a long line; wait times would increase by years. At the end of 2010, the EEOC had a backlog of more than 86,000 cases And the federal agency predicts that its backlog will swell to more than 144,000 by 2016.

According to state human-rights officials, the agency receives several thousand complaints per year and investigates about 1,000 of them -- mostly in the areas of age, gender, race and disability. With about 38 employees, the department costs about $3.3 million annually.

That's much less than it would cost over time in legal fees and court resources, if most of these cases went directly to court. Through its findings of probable cause and by handling cases efficiently, the department helps reduce the financial burden on both complainants and respondents.

Without the human-rights department, many who have been discriminated against would have no place to turn for a remedy.

In these difficult budget times, most state departments will take cuts in the spirit of shared sacrifice. But 65 percent is excessive and far beyond what is being asked of other agencies.

Minnesota is about to conduct a statewide vote over whether the state's Constitution should be amended to deny gays and lesbians the right to legally marry. Discrimination is alive and well.

In a perfect world, where everyone treated all others with respect and dignity, there might be no need for state agencies to defend human rights. But we don't live in that world -- not yet. That's why the state still needs a human-rights department.

When state lawmakers get back to budget business, Gov. Mark Dayton should make good on his promise to keep the agency afloat.

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