The scope of a possible special legislative session widened Wednesday after Senate DFLers said they want to include measures aimed at reducing stubbornly high unemployment and poverty rates among black Minnesotans.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk on Wednesday said that if state lawmakers meet for a special legislative session, as Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed, they should also consider approving measures that “focus on challenges facing the black community in Minnesota.”
Dayton last week called for a special meeting of the Legislature late this year or early next to extend unemployment benefits for at least 600 steelworkers left jobless by idling plants in northern Minnesota.
State leaders in recent weeks have increasingly focused on the economic conditions of black Minnesotans, following a recent U.S. Census report showing that black median household income fell from 2013 to 2014 to about $27,000. The rate of black poverty also rose 5 percentage points to 38 percent during that time, despite strong economic conditions reported for much of the rest of the state.
Bakk, DFL-Cook, sees a link between unemployment benefits on the Iron Range and the “complex, multifaceted drivers of persistent unemployment and increasing poverty levels experienced by many black Minnesotans.”
“If we’re going to be dealing with long-term unemployment, we ought to include them,” Bakk said of measures aimed at black Minnesotans.
Dayton, who has pledged a more aggressive effort by his administration to reduce racial disparities in the workforce, state contracting and business development, agreed with Bakk.
In a statement, he said “any special session concerning the economic hardships of steelworkers on the Iron Range should also begin to address the serious economic disparities facing black Minnesotans.”
The prospects for a special session, however, remained hazy.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, continued his silence on the matter, declining to comment on the session proposal unveiled a week ago. A spokeswoman said he was still discussing the issue with his caucus.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, said that Bakk’s proposal was too vague and that he would oppose efforts to spend taxpayer dollars without receiving assurances that those efforts would be tracked to ensure success.
He instead said education changes should be considered if legislators are aiming to address racial disparities.
“The biggest challenges we face are the educational achievement problems that have plagued minority and low-income kids,” said Hann, underscoring the dramatic achievement gap in Minneapolis and St. Paul between whites and students of color.
House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, criticized Daudt’s silence on a possible special session.
“If there is a special session, I would support starting the urgent work of addressing racial disparities in this state — keeping in mind that much more work than can be done in one special session is needed to truly tackle this issue in a meaningful way,” Thissen said.
Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, said that she and other senators have discussed with the administration the inclusion of bills that already have been vetted by the Legislature, including a handful aimed at spurring black entrepreneurship and workforce development.
“It’s something I felt should be brought to the table,” Dziedzic said. “I’m sympathetic to [Iron] Rangers — I think we should help them, but there are other pockets around the state that need help, too.”
Acknowledging the complexity of addressing black unemployment and poverty, Dziedzic said she expects that debate will continue well into next year, even after a special session, if one is held.
Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, has attended two recent forums in Minneapolis and St. Paul with the black community and nonprofit groups.
Moran, the only black House representative, said she and other legislators are hoping to build a broad coalition that would include black voices.
Moran said the input of the black community, including African immigrants, is critical in shaping any new policies.
“We have to be more intentional in creating policies that are fair, just and work for all of us and allowing the black community to be part of that solution,” Moran said. “I believe that at this time, we’re not asking for anything else or anything different from the 600 individuals [from the Iron Range] seeking unemployment benefits.”
Staff writer Patrick Condon contributed to this report.