BY DANE SMITH AND MAUREEN RAMIREZ OF GROWTH AND JUSTICE
Most news media reviews of the 2015 legislative session have focused on general disappointment in the process and unrealized expectations, especially given a large projected budget surplus. We Minnesotans who are focused on equity issues and socio-economic disparities can’t overlook the obvious shortcomings.
Among them: Overall, a record low number of bills passed. The no-go list included initiatives ranging from restoration of voting rights for those while on probation to increased benefits or tax reductions for our most disadvantaged families and children. Lawmakers failed to pass a major long-term transportation and transit funding package, despite years of consensus that one is sorely needed. When it went home, the Legislature left on the table about $800 million to $1 billion of a projected $1.8 billion projected surplus, to be allocated as expenditures or tax cuts in 2016 or later, while actually cutting budgets for some vital Health and Human Services functions.
With so many investment opportunities out there for our neglected human capital, with so many unmet needs for Minnesotans living in poverty and for other vulnerable households, and with inequality and racial disparities threatening our long-term prosperity, this is disappointing indeed. Compared to our historic progress toward equity in the 2013 and 2014 sessions, 2015 represents a slowdown, at least. But perhaps not a complete standstill, or lost ground, overall. In the final product are some important and mostly unheralded provisions that are likely to build equity for low- and middle-income families and children, and that reduce economic and racial disparities in Minnesota.
Here are some important fronts where progress was made on an equity agenda for Minnesota.
- Workforce Equity: Funding for career pathway programs (basic skills instruction, job training and support services) was more than tripled, to $11.3 million. Outcome reporting and the evaluation process for workforce training programs were expanded and improved. First steps were taken toward a revision of remediation requirements, led by Students for Education Reform, reducing barriers to degree completion for students of color. Also, a variety of policies that give disadvantaged high school students early college credits were expanded. Our Capitol Report op-ed in April urged lawmakers to make these workforce policy changes a high priority.
- Early Childhood Investment
The eventual bi-partisan compromise on the education bill significantly increased access to high quality pre-K programs for 3- and 4- year olds for our most vulnerable families. The bill nearly doubles Minnesota’s investment in early learning, adding some $100 million to current appropriations. Growth & Justice is a charter member of the MinneMinds coalition that has been leading the fight for early childhood investment. Think Small, a key member of that coalition, broke down the increased investment thusly: $48 million for early learning scholarships; $30.75 million for school readiness programs in school districts; $10 million to reduce the Head Start waiting list; $10 million for child care assistance; $3.5 million to support Parent Aware quality ratings; and more funding for ECFE (Early Childhood and Family Education program), targeted Home Visiting and the Parent Child Home Program
- Higher Education Goal Set
Growth & Justice and other champions for equity have been urging Minnesota to set a long-term higher-education goal and to reduce racial disparities in attainment for nearly a decade, and this persistence has paid off. New language in state law sets a goal for the portion of Minnesota residents between the ages of 25 and 44 who hold a post-secondary certificate or degree to reach 70 percent by the year 2025 and to keep track of progress toward that goal by communities of color. (The current attainment percentage for this age group in Minnesota is estimated at between 50 percent and 60 percent, depending on what counts as post-secondary completion.) Learn more about why this goal is important in our latest Capitol Report Column, by Maureen Ramirez.
- Rural and Urban Education Partnerships
Growth & Justice has for years been a leading advocate for emerging new local community partnerships focused holistically on reducing educational disparities and improving student success. Working with a coalition of Greater Minnesota partnerships in Red Wing, St. Cloud, and Northfield, along with advocates from Minneapolis’ Northside Achievement Zone and the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, $5 million was secured to sustain and expand these community partnerships. About $4 million of that goes to the initiatives in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Our op-ed late in the session pushed urban-rural partnership funding as a compromise in the deadlocked education bill.
- American Indian Investment The Star Tribune’s outstanding expose of the shocking neglect of American Indian education, urban and rural, helped produce $18 million in new funding for our Indian students, whether they are in public schools or tribal schools. The newspaper’s editorial praise of the legislation notes that much of the new funding will expand a proven program known as “Success for the Future,” to every school serving 20 or more Indian students.
- Housing and Homeless Advocates working for the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless helped secure a $13 million boost for housing and homeless services: in total, the broader range of priorities sought by the Homes for All coalition will receive $24 million more in 2016-2017 than the last budget cycle. New funds will help thousands of Minnesotans access safe, stable, affordable housing.
- Long-Term Care Increase Serves Workforce Equity Despite a Health and Human Services Budget that cut over $300 million in health-care spending, Minnesota long-term care workers won a battle for a new rate system that invests an additional $138 million over the next two years. SEIU, the union serving those workers, has described the increase as a “historic victory’’ that will significantly increase the compensation for thousands of historically underpaid workers.
Targeted investments for vulnerable populations properly deserve high priority, but it’s important that overall sufficiency be maintained for all the good things that state and local governments do for broader common good, and that’s most things governments do, actually. And on that score, the 2015 session at least provided the necessities.
Funding for public schools has lagged in recent decades and the education bill contains decent overall increases — 2 percent in each of the next two years, in the basic formula. Higher education systems got about $166 million in increases in both support for state institutions and tuition aid. Nursing homes and their underpaid workers were big winners, as noted above. State policies and appropriations that drive us toward renewable energy and a cleaner environment were preserved and modestly enhanced.
The 2015 session reminds us of Martin Luther’s King’s timeless wisdom about the “arc of the moral universe’’ being long and slow, but bending inevitably toward justice. Sometimes we take giant leaps forward, then we pause or even take a small step backward. We know can do better in coming sessions for the cause of justice and equity, and we will.
Dane Smith is the president and Maureen Ramirez is the policy and research director for Growth & Justice, a policy research and advocacy organization that aims to broaden prosperity and reduce economic and racial disparities in Minnesota. Smith is a former journalist with 30 years of experience covering government and politics for the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Ramirez was formerly a member of the Board of Regents for the University of Minnesota.