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One Big Gem and Silver Threads: A Legislative Session Wrap-Up

by Dane Smith, President of Growth & Justice

The headline and summary paragraph in the Star Tribune’s editorial page wrap-up of the 2016 legislative session captured the dismal conventional wisdom about the anticlimactic end of negotiations for a legislative special session.

Under “A Sorry Finish to an Unproductive Session,’’ the editorialists opined that Gov. Mark Dayton’s decision to end negotiations means “no tax relief, no building projects (bonding) bill, no new transportation funding- and no reason for confidence in the ability of this cast of lawmaking characters to produce a different result next year if they hold their seats in this fall’s election.’’

And for the growing number of Minnesotans focused on equity- reducing economic inequality and erasing racial disparities, building assets for disadvantaged communities- the outcome is especially frustrating.  Among the vetoed or failed proposals are urban transit investments, working family tax credits, increases in basic human services benefits, building projects serving the homeless and Native Americans, voting rights restoration for people who have served their time, and pittances instead of major new investments in promising new Career Pathways models and early childhood education.

The One Big Gem: Disparity Reduction As a Distinct Budget Priority

Despite it all, the Minnesota Legislature and Gov. Dayton established an important equity beachhead in 2016, simply by elevating racial, economic and educational equity from a footnote to a primary official category in the budget process.

“Reducing disparity’’ became a battle cry and a distinct bi-partisan budget item almost by gubernatorial fiat, when Gov. Dayton rather dramatically declared it a top priority to business leaders,  after seeing shocking numbers in late 2015 on continuing wide gaps between blacks and whites in income and employment, despite overall growth and prosperity since the Great Recession.

The response was truly bipartisan and affirming.  Republicans and Democrats appointed co-chairs (state Rep. Jim Knoblach of St. Cloud and Bobby Jo Champion of Minneapolis) to serve on a joint House-Senate “Working Group on Economic Disparities’’ and dozens of members in both parties signed up to serve on the panel.  Hundreds of citizens and scores of groups came forward with disparity reducing proposals at hearings and other forums.  Growth & Justice both participated in and gave voice to the ground-breaking effort, with testimony specifically emphasizing more investment in Career Pathways and frequent commentary and social media that make the case for equity policy as an imperative for business and economic growth.

In the end, Dayton’s initial demand for $100 million for disparity reduction ended up producing only about $35 million toward that end, most of it on  job training and improved Career Pathway models administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED).  However, about half that amount is built into the budget base as an ongoing commitment and there is little doubt that disparity reduction is here to stay as a priority.  As evidence continues to mount showing that Minnesota’s overall prosperity is beset with some of the worst racial disparities in the nation, the momentum will grow for more attention and more investment.

Those Big Disappointments

The disappointments of 2016, and for that matter both years of the 2015-2016 legislative biennium, must not be glossed over, especially when compared to the outstanding progress on the equity fronts in 2013-14.  (See Growth & Justice’s previous blogs assessing the 2015 and 2013-14 sessions).

The Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) line, a project that experts say will better connect our urban underemployed with job growth in the southern and western suburbs, was jeopardized by the impasse and its future is still uncertain.  Transportation needs and mobility improvements for low-income residents in rural areas also are shelved.  Gov. Dayton and local government and business leaders working with the Metropolitan Council appear to be on the verge of rescuing the SWLRT, but most observers agree the rescue package, comprised mostly of high-interest loans and stopgap funding from local county sources, is a bad way to finance transit.

Meanwhile, about a billion dollars in bonding bill projects have been shelved, which would have provided about 40,000 jobs and sorely needed infrastructure construction and repair from border-to-border.  A nice summary of how that failure affects projects, from the Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul to a clean-up of the Duluth-Superior harbor, was published in the Pioneer Press toward the end of the session.  Many of these projects would have directly benefited vulnerable Minnesotans, including the Red Lake Early Learning Childhood Center, the Perspectives Family Center in St. Louis Park, many public housing or affordable housing projects, and new or improved facilities for childhood education and development.

On another front, a major tax bill that passed the Senate and House, vetoed because of an error in language that could have cost the state about $100 million, probably had an overall progressive impact on tax incidence.  Many of the proposed reductions were earmarked for low- and middle-income taxpayers, and the bill would have provided about $50 million annually to 386,000 low-income households, or about $125 each, through expansion of the Working Family Credit.

Beyond the failure of those major bills, which were passed or close to negotiated agreement, many other efforts to reduce inequality and to erase racial disparities were defeated earlier or died quietly in committees or the floor of the chambers.   These include proposals to increase the Child Care Assistance Program, to finally lift the Minnesota Family Investment Program cash assistance benefits (which has not had an inflationary increase in 30 years), or to grant voting rights to felons who are no longer behind bars but are still on probation.

Other Silver Threads

Underneath the one big gem and the demise of the big packages lie dozens of  appropriations and policy changes in other omnibus bills that represent encouraging progress toward  racial, social, economic and gender equity.  Gleaning through spreadsheets and legislative wrap-ups by the Minnesota Budget Project,  Voices for Racial Justice, ISIAIAH, Think Small, and news media sources, there were perhaps enough silver threads to stitch together a silver lining.

Here are just a few of those threads:

  • An estimated 3,700 pre-schoolers will benefit from a $25 million grant program to help public schools establish high-quality early childhood services. Additional funds for early childhood programs come to about $7 million and continued total investment in this vital area continues to rise.
  • A new Legislative Task Force on Access to Affordable Child Care has been created, with recommendations due January 2017.
  • A new Minnesota Emerging Entrepreneur Program will give grants to non-profits who provide loans to businesses owned by people of color, women and people with disabilities. About $2 million has been committed for the next few years.
  • Total appropriations for expanded or new programs that reduce disparity actually comes closer to $70 million than $35 million, through more than 50 programs and initiatives, according to an analysis and summary by the Office on the Economic Status of Women. The agency’s director, Barbara Battiste, said in a recent post-session convening that 2016 was actually “a good year for equity, or better than commonly reported.’’

This summer and fall, dozens of community groups are working on proposals for the 2017 Legislature  that expand the state budget for disparity reduction, in effect creating a broad and persistent  “equity agenda’’ in Minnesota.  Growth & Justice, in a recent Star Tribune commentary, outlined how rural Minnesota could be better served by such an equity agenda with a “Better Together’’ theme.  And we are optimistic and confident that our elected leaders eventually will reach consensus on a policy agenda that creates a broader and more inclusive prosperity and sustainable business growth.

Dane Smith is the president of 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. 

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