Minnesota leaders knew they could only do so much in one legislative session to unwind racial disparities embedded in the state's history and policies, but they said 2021 was the year for big strides.

Many advocates said they came up short.

"Until the work starts to address those core, foundational issues that are causing so many problems — calling out white supremacy and racism — we're not meeting the moment," said Brett Grant, policy and research director for the nonprofit Voices for Racial Justice.

In the aftermath of George Floyd's killing by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, both Democrats and Republicans at the State Capitol said the state needed to tackle racial inequities. The DFL-led House created a Select Committee on Racial Justice that came up with 83 policy recommendations to dismantle racism. Gov. Tim Walz stressed that the world is watching what Minnesota does.

But converting that sentiment into tangible policies and spending often proved difficult in the nation's only divided Legislature, where lawmakers disagree on how best to tackle disparities and just the word "equity" can spark disputes. Legislators, nonprofit leaders and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan say they plan to continue pushing for a long list of unfinished racial equity priorities, although some worry election season politics could hamper their goals in 2022.

Despite frustrations about what did not get done, the two-year budget lawmakers completed this summer does contain hundreds of millions of dollars for initiatives that will address inequities among communities of color, low-income families, women and other groups, according to a list compiled by the Walz administration.

"There were definitely some great wins," said Rep. Samantha Vang, DFL-Brooklyn Center, who co-chairs the Legislature's People of Color and Indigenous Caucus. But, she added, "We will never really be satisfied until we see the disparities are addressed and the gaps being closed."

Vang pointed to changes in civil asset forfeiture as one success from the 2021 session. The law ends civil forfeitures under $1,500, except in certain drug cases where authorities can establish a direct link to criminal activity. She also highlighted the education funding bill, which tripled the available funding for recruitment and retention of K-12 teachers of color to about $13 million annually, according to an analysis by the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota.

Lawmakers also passed the critical Dignity in Pregnancy and Childbirth Act, said Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, who co-chaired the House Select Committee on Racial Justice. The law requires hospitals with obstetric care and birth centers to offer anti-racism and implicit bias training to staff who care for pregnant and postpartum patients. It was part of a larger health and human services budget deal that extended postpartum medical assistance for new mothers and increased funding for the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which provides cash and food assistance to families and children.

Many minority-owned businesses will benefit from the Legislature's passage of $150 million for business grants and loans, said Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-East Gull Lake. And Gazelka and Flanagan both highlighted the creation of a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives office within state government, as well as a task force focused on missing and murdered Black women.

But after months of heated debate, lawmakers agreed on only limited law enforcement accountability measures. Democrats wanted the state to take more sweeping action, including banning traffic stops for minor offenses and lifting the statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits against police. Gazelka said the GOP doesn't support any measures that would discourage police from doing their job, and he noted that legislators passed a slate of significant policing changes during a special session last year.

"The country is really looking to us after the murder of George Floyd and the death of Daunte Wright [who was killed by police in Brooklyn Center in April]. This should be a top priority for everyone," Flanagan said. "There are things that explicitly are grounded in change we need to see in law enforcement that we still need to do, and I think we need to come back at it."

One of the biggest unfinished priorities for Richardson is a ban on school suspensions of children in kindergarten through third grade. The suspensions disproportionately affect Black and Indigenous students. Meanwhile, Rep. Lisa Demuth, R-Cold Spring, vice chairwoman of the House's racial justice committee, said she wants to end the "last in, first out" practice for teacher layoffs that she said results in more teachers of color losing their jobs.

Grant, with Voices for Racial Justice, and several other advocates said they are disappointed state officials did not approve "racial equity impact notes." The notes would require legislators to consider which communities would be affected by legislation and identify unintended consequences that could worsen existing disparities or create new ones.

Some of Walz's key tax proposals also fell by the wayside, including a new fifth tier income tax bracket. The policies would have benefited lower-income residents, Minnesota Budget Project Director Nan Madden said during a recent news conference where leaders of various coalitions and nonprofits laid out ways legislators fell short in addressing racial equity this year.

There's a "culture war" taking place that made equity work difficult, Walz said. During budget talks, he said, Senate Republicans "made it clear to me that they would not sign anything that had the word 'equity' in it. I told them I know where a thesaurus is and we'll work together. But that was an issue."

"In Democrat[ic] circles, sometimes the word 'equity' means fund your friends," Gazelka said, and the GOP was careful about where resources were directed. "We are looking for things that work."

He pointed to the teachers union Education Minnesota as an example of DFL allies. That group opposed Republicans' push for school choice vouchers, which Gazelka said they will continue to call for and believe will help address racial disparities in education.

However, legislators will focus on a public works infrastructure package, not budget items, in next year's session, he said. DFL lawmakers want to include dollars for groups addressing racial equity in that package; Gazelka said Republicans plan to fund roads, bridges, buildings and wastewater systems.

"We don't have an agenda to do anything else related to equity. We're focused on capital investment, but that doesn't mean we won't listen," he said.

Finding agreement could be complicated, with all 201 legislative seats and the governor's office on the ballot in 2022. When the Legislature meets for its next regular session in January, some equity advocates anticipate encountering more resistance — particularly with Republican operatives gearing up to make related topics, such as critical race theory, wedge issues in midterm races.

Grant saw 2021 as the year to pass measures such as the racial equity impact notes. He said Republicans' arguments on such topics as critical race theory and their approach to equity proposals, make fruitful discussions difficult.

"Unless they're willing to suspend those beliefs ... it's almost pointless to keep engaging in discussions," Grant said.

Staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

Maya Miller • 612-673-7086