Legislators listened for hours Friday to public testimony on what to do about the stark disparities between whites and people of color in income, education and other measures.
The public hearing of a special legislative working group on the issue was packed, even though prospects of a special legislative session to confront the problem — proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton — look dim.
Even without a special session, the Legislature is expected to take up the issue when lawmakers convene for their regular legislative session in March.
Republicans began the group's second meeting by proposing an expanded tax benefit for families who want to send their children to private schools to escape what they portrayed as failing public schools. The plan would cost about $35 million to $40 million, according to the Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud.
Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, praised the performance of poor and minority children in some of the state's charter and private schools and said education is the long-term solution to disparities.
"Education works. Plain and simple. As long as we have a two-tiered system on education, we're going to have two-tiered outcomes" in incomes and other socio-economic measures, Garofalo said.
Black Minnesotans were the only racial group to see their incomes fall in recent years, with their median household income dropping to $27,000 in 2014, down from $31,500 in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
DFL legislators are pushing aid to community groups and programs that have shown success in areas like education, business development and job training, with a package that is also about $35 million.
Gary Cunningham, of the Metropolitan Economic Development Association, said his group helps minority-owned businesses get started by providing much-needed money.
Cunningham said that between 2007 and 2012, the number of minority-owned businesses in Minnesota was up 53 percent, while the number of white-owned businesses was down 3 percent. And half of the 63,000 workers those businesses hired were minorities, he said.
"If you're going to have an impact, you're going to do it with minority-owned businesses," he said.