In the days after George Floyd's death, Minnesota legislators on both sides of the aisle said the state was at a critical moment.
"I believe that Minnesota needs to lead the nation in race reconciliation. We have an opportunity. This is an opportunity that comes around once in a generation. And what are we going to do with that?" Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said the week after Floyd died in police custody.
For legislators, the answer to that question lies, in part, in the hundreds of pages of budget plans released this week.
The bills detail different visions for the next two years of state spending on things ranging from education to workforce development to the judicial system. Attempts to reduce racial disparities have been written into — or left out of — the financial documents.
"We are a divided Legislature. But that doesn't stop us from bringing that awareness forward on the type of bills that we need, and should be moving, within this legislative body to really eliminate the disparities and really reduce the racism that we see, that are embedded in laws and policies," said Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, who co-chaired a House Select Committee on Racial Justice created last fall.
Many of House Democrats' budget and policy ideas that address race stem from that committee. It was tasked with ensuring the Legislature was considering racial equity in future policy and spending decisions. The committee produced 83 recommendations to try to eliminate disparities, including boosting state spending on schools that offer broad community services, instituting paid family and medical leave and banning suspensions of students partway through elementary school.
While those ideas and others are wrapped into numerous House bills, many of the 83 suggestions did not make it into the big budget proposals.
There is no marijuana decriminalization or expungement of people's records for such offenses. Cash bail reform is absent. Several environmental justice suggestions were left out. And the biggest price-tag item is not in the mix: a $1 billion fund to support economic development activities by Minnesotans who are Black, Indigenous and people of color.
The proposed changes were never going to be passed in one fell swoop, Moran said.
"We're not going to get all of this done in one session, two sessions," she said. "We are in this for the long haul."
Some items are partly addressed. Instead of extending Medicaid coverage for new mothers up to one year after they give birth, the House Health Finance bill would extend medical assistance for eligible women from 60 days postpartum to 180 days. It is one of several elements in the health bill aimed at tackling racial disparities in the rates of death and illness among pregnant women and infants.
"U.S.-born Black women in Minnesota are nearly three times more likely to die during pregnancy or within one year postpartum than white women, and Indigenous mothers are nearly eight times more likely to die in this period than white women," the select committee's report noted.
Many of the House's racial equity measures are missing from Senate budget bills.
But members of the Republican-led Senate said their bills also tackle disparities. They contended GOP priorities, such as not raising taxes and expanding school choice, will benefit communities of color.
The Senate education bill would create "education savings accounts," where families who pull their child out of public school could use state education assistance dollars for private school tuition or other education expenses. Education Committee Chairman Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, has said in a statement the savings accounts give parents control of their child's education, and, "Choice is the number one request I receive from parents, especially from communities of color."
The Senate and House education packages both devote money over the next two years to expanding programs to mentor and retain teachers of color and Native American teachers.
The Senate human services bill would increase pay for personal care assistants, a large percentage of whom are women of color, said Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka. He noted that bill devotes $5.3 million over the next two years, about four times as much as Democratic Gov. Tim Walz's budget, to reforms in the federal Family First Prevention Services Act that aim to prevent children from entering foster care and to keep families together. A disproportionate number of children of color have historically been placed in the child welfare system.
"We definitely have thought more about it because the attention has been put there," Abeler said of racial inequality. "So it's more front-of-mind."
But Gazelka said the primary focus this session is the state budget and COVID-19. Police accountability is one of the conversations they will continue in the future, he said, noting that if there is a lot of disagreement about "peripheral things" they will have to wait until next year.
The Legislature's first major policymaking response to Floyd's death was the passage of a police reform package last July. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle called it a compromise and a first step.
A next step found in the House public safety bill would give local governments the ability to grant a civilian council more authority in reviewing complaints against officers and imposing discipline. The bill would add requirements for tracking officer complaints and discipline, and prohibits officers from affiliating with white supremacist groups. Senators left those items out of their public safety proposal.
However, both the House and Senate designate $12 million over two years for officer training assistance. The House bill deems those dollars the "Philando Castile Memorial Training Fund" and has more rules for how to use the money.
After the House and Senate pass their budget bills, they will sort through their differences in conference committees and must negotiate with Walz, who has his own set of priorities. The goal is to pass the next state budget by the end of session on May 17.
"There are still plenty of weeks left," said Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, the other racial justice committee co-chair. She noted her bill to tackle childbirth disparities got bipartisan support in House committees, and just because a proposal is not in a Senate budget bill doesn't mean it won't pass this year.
"The momentum that we've had with being able to even have some deep conversations about this in committee," said Richardson, "I think we've got an opportunity to do some really great bipartisan work here that is going to create a stronger Minnesota for everyone."
Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044