Though many Minnesotans are legitimately frustrated about the failure of the Legislature and governor to finish the 2016 session’s work, they should applaud lawmakers for getting this right: They agreed to support efforts to help close glaring economic and other disparities in the state.
Earlier this month, Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law a supplementary spending plan that includes $35 million in one-time funding for programs to help reduce racial economic and educational disparities. It’s less than Dayton’s proposed $100 million, but it’s a good start. And understanding the continuing need, lawmakers agreed to $17.5 million per year in ongoing funding.
Now that funding must be carefully monitored to make sure it has the intended impact — improving economic conditions for Minnesotans of color. If successfully managed, the grants should help leverage investment in the state’s most challenged communities and increase workforce participation in the face of a worker shortage.
The majority of the funds — $34 million — will be administered through DEED, Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economic Development. The agency will allocate grants to more than 30 organizations and nonprofits.
They include groups and programs such as Hennepin County’s Career Connections Pathways, White Earth Nation Business Development, the Latino nonprofit CLUES, the African-American organization Ujamaa Place and Twin Cities Rise. The grants will help expand access to nutritious food, neighborhood development, aid to minority-run businesses and moving more women into high-wage, nontraditional jobs. The funds also will support youth employment and adult career training.
As DEED Commissioner Shawntera Hardy envisions it, state hiring and retention should also benefit from the funding. She said that as a major employer, the state expects to hire some of those who participate in educational and job training efforts. The department also plans to do business with a more diverse group of vendors — some of which may participate in entrepreneur programs assisted by state racial equity grants.
In separate efforts, the Minneapolis and St. Paul city governments are involved in systemwide efforts to evaluate and improve equity in their operations. And officials from 13 Minnesota government agencies, including a few cities and counties, met for the first time earlier this year to discuss systemic inequities.
State lawmakers are still at odds over unfinished business on taxes, bonding and transportation. But despite those continuing disagreements, they did manage to come together to acknowledge that the state has stubbornly entrenched disparities in education, employment, income, health and housing. Their decision to fund racial equity efforts sends a strong signal that state government has a role in expanding access to opportunity and reducing those disparities.