The Minnesota Department of Human Rights, a 50-year-old state agency charged with investigating claims of illegal discrimination, has seen its staff shrink by almost half from its historic peak in 1990.

The steady drop in full-time enforcement officers and other staff comes amid a growing workload in recent years and heightened racial tensions in Minnesota over the past year. While hate crimes overall have declined in Minnesota since 2010, reports of hate crimes directed at Muslims are up in Minnesota, according to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).

Discrimination complaints on the basis of race and religion are only a fraction of the cases the agency handles, but Commissioner Kevin Lindsey worries his staff is already stretched too thin.

The state agency has fewer than 40 employees to investigate discrimination complaints and whether state contractors are meeting diversity goals in hiring.

That’s down from a peak of 70 people more than 20 years ago. The agency’s responsibilities, which are set by the Legislature, have expanded recently to include making sure companies don’t ask about a job seeker’s criminal history on initial employment applications and monitoring compliance with the state’s anti-bullying law. The creation of Gov. Mark Dayton’s diversity and inclusion council also added to the workload.

Lindsey, a veteran civil litigation attorney, said the agency needs additional funding if it is to meet its growing workload.

“We’re kind of stretched at our capacity to be able to deliver all the things that we’re supposed to be doing under the [human rights] statute,” he said.

With a budget forecast set to be released next week, state departments are now preparing spending requests for Dayton to consider as he puts together his budget recommendations for the upcoming biennium.

Last year, Lindsey and Dayton sought additional funding for a full-time satellite office in St. Cloud.

The office now is only staffed twice a month when an enforcement officer travels there from St. Paul.

It’s unclear whether a GOP-controlled Legislature will make beefing up the Human Rights office a priority when legislators return to the Capitol in January and begin debating a new two-year state budget.

When Republicans last controlled both the Minnesota House and Senate, they proposed cutting the agency’s budget by nearly two-thirds, but Dayton vetoed the budget bill and the office received its full funding request of $3.2 million.

Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, last year supported additional funding for a full-time office in his district and said in a recent interview he simply did not know how much the agency’s staffing had fallen.

“I wasn’t aware that it had dropped that much,” said Knoblach, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. “We’d certainly be willing to look at any requests that they have and consider them.”

More with less

Lindsey, 51, has labored to make the office more efficient since he was first appointed to the post in 2011 by Dayton. During his tenure, the agency has restructured its enforcement unit to expand the number of staff responsible for investigating administrative charges.

Senior management also took on an increased workload, including Lindsey, who now assumes the responsibility of drafting appeals by charging parties and other respondents who have cases before the state.

A 1996 audit by the Legislative Auditor’s Office found that the department took too long to investigate claims, leading to backlogs.

Lindsey has found small ways to improve the number of enforcement staff, speed up investigations and reduce the time it takes to draft administrative charges.

Following the 2011 budget battle, the time it took to draft administrative charges plummeted from about 70 days to less than a week.

After the retirements of some senior management officials in 2011 and 2012, the funding was shifted to the hiring of additional enforcement officers.

Lindsey’s soft-spoken nature stands in stark contrast with an increasingly polarized electorate that appears bitterly divided along rural and racial lines. As Democrats nationally assess their recent defeats in the most recent election, some within the party say focusing on so-called identity politics and other social issues cost them votes among white rural voters.

Enforce — and educate

Even as the state’s racial demographics shift, Lindsey said he tries to dispel the myth that his office only serves minorities or women.

Many of the cases it investigates examine discrimination based on disability, he said.

Moreover, Lindsey has tried to engage civic and other groups that he said play a key role in educating constituents about the services his agency provides.

“I’ve really tried to explain what administrative agencies do, how they can impact your life,” he said.

“We have broadened that to how the department can play a role in facilitating getting people around the table to come up with constructive solutions to problems and not necessarily from an adversarial standpoint of coming and using our enforcement part of the house.”

Different approaches

Lindsey that he learned from his extensive experience in employment law that a purely enforcement strategy would be detrimental.

“There will always be some issues [in which] enforcement will be important, but there’s a whole host of things in the education piece that are just as important,” he said. “Not every case, not every issue needs to have the same approach.”