Republicans seeking to balance the state budget are taking aim at the state Department of Human Rights, an agency that probes discrimination complaints.
The human rights department also educates about discrimination and certifies that state contractors comply with equal opportunity hiring laws.
State lawmakers passed a bill last week that slashes the department's budget by 65 percent. That would provide the department with more than $4 million less than Gov. Mark Dayton recommended. Republicans say the department's work can be streamlined or done by other agencies.
WORKS IN CONJUNCTION WITH OTHER AGENCIES
Hamline University law professor Joseph Daly runs a student law clinic that represents people who filed complaints with the state Department of Human Rights. The clinic represented a woman just last week whose boss exposed himself to her.
"And you think, wait, this is 2011?" Daly said. "And of course no one saw it except him and her. So how do you prove this sort of thing? These are tough cases. There are Neanderthals walking around, and you just have to figure out how best to deal with them. You may never change them, but if we can extract a large sum of money from their employer, their employer's going to change them."
Over the last decade similar complaints have poured into the state Department of Human Rights, the human rights departments of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Minnesotans most frequently complained about discrimination based on disabilities, gender, race and religion. The state Department of Human Rights received 325 complaints of disability discrimination last year, more than any other category. Race and religion came in second with 261 complaints. And 207 people complained about gender discrimination.
Officials say the federal, state and local agencies share complaints and don't investigate them at the same time. The EEOC only covers employment discrimination, while the Minnesota human rights law covers much more. It includes housing discrimination and discrimination based on sexual orientation, for example. The agency finds proof of discrimination in about 10 percent of the complaints it receives.
Several lawyers, including Daly, said the state agency and human rights divisions in Minneapolis and St. Paul work well together and individually.
"In my judgment, based on what we've seen in the clinic, all three are needed, maybe more," Daly said. "Maybe you need to expand those three. Because there are a lot of complaints about discrimination out there."
REPUBLICANS WANT OVERHAUL OF DEPARTMENT
But from the outside, three agencies working on discrimination complaints could look like overkill. It did to some state Republicans, including Rep. Tony Cornish of Good Thunder, who wonders if the state Department of Human Rights should be folded into another state agency.
He points out that that's how 17 other states handle discrimination complaints. Cornish also thinks the state could eliminate the department's mandate to educate about discrimination.
"We think they're doing a good job investigating complaints, and we thought that it was more important to concentrate on enforcement," Cornish said. "We changed their mission and tied the state funds to enforcement and if they want to use federal funds for education and outreach, that was fine."
Cornish also wants to limit the department's responsibility for certifying that state contractors comply with equal-opportunity hiring requirements. Right now the department investigates any business with a state contract of at least $100,000. Cornish wants to raise that to $250,000 and have certificates expire in five years instead of two.
State Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey said that will be a step back for minorities.
"That's going to have a negative impact on job creation for people of color and for women in the state of Minnesota because they will not be able to get their foot into the door," he said.
Lindsey said the agency had to lay off employees because of previous state cuts and any more cutbacks would mean much longer waits for people who file complaints. Lindsey said the federal EEOC and city agencies couldn't take up the slack because they're already working at capacity.
"Our agency can't handle any more cuts. We're beyond a tipping point in my estimation," he said. "If we care about democracy, if we care about ourselves as a state, we've got to recognize human rights are vital, and we shouldn't be taking them for granted."
He said because the state has passed a human rights law, the state should enforce it.