The Minnesota Department of Human Rights dodged a proverbial bullet this year when the Republican-controlled Legislature, tried, but failed, to eliminate more than half of its funding.
The small department continues its mission to eliminate discrimination through enforcement and education. But some GOP leaders question the need for the agency, and they haven't given up on their effort to eliminate it.
For the past 40 years, the department has investigated allegations of illegal discrimination and has made sure businesses are complying with equal opportunity requirements in state contracts.
At a recent gathering at the Rondo Library in St. Paul, the department's commissioner, Kevin Lindsey, told community leaders that his new policy is to investigate every charge of discrimination filed with the agency.
"We used to have a process where we would docket and then dismiss cases. We would dismiss cases for a lack of resources," he said. "In essence, because we did not have enough people to be able to investigate charges, we would dismiss some of those charges. We've eliminated that practice."
Lindsey promises not only to investigate all charges but also to resolve charges faster. In January, it took an average of 400 days to resolve a case. The department has already trimmed that time by up to 30 days. It hired two new enforcement officers and no longer requires people filing complaints to fill out lengthy questionnaires.
Lindsey said the old process simply took too long.
"As an employment attorney, I know that the longer things go on it's much more difficult for someone who feels that they've been discriminated to feel that they've got justice from the system. But also conversely, having represented employers too, that it shouldn't take more than 400 days if you've done everything right and you're still waiting for resolution," he said. "Because it's a disruption within your workplace if you've got some charge pending in there."
The department saw a 20 percent increase in the number of charges filed for the first half of the year. Lindsey said there are more complaints of discrimination based on age, disability, race and gender.
But critics who tried to slash the department's funding last session remain unconvinced about its importance. Some have suggested discrimination is no longer a significant issue. Others claim the department duplicates the work of other government agencies, such as the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
State Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he has concerns about the department trying to expand its workload through outreach and education.
"In some ways many legislators think they go out and search for potential litigation, rather than letting a litigant come to them," said Limmer, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
State Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, has similar concerns. Cornish, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee said he would like to move the department into the attorney general's office.
"Our committee just doesn't think there's enough work to justify a separate agency," Cornish said. "We should go like other states and put it under the A.G.'s purview as a division of them, and downsize it quite a bit for the amount of work they have."
In 2010, there were 802 complaints filed with the department. A quarter of them alleged discrimination against the disabled. Complaints of racial discrimination followed at 10 percent.
State Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said it's clear to him that the department still has plenty of work to do.
"I think it's important that the department is there to give people a forum to have their complaints heard and adjudicated in an informal way that avoids going to court," Marty said.
Marty said he's convinced the department is doing a good job with its limited resources. He said Lindsey needs to keep doing what he's been doing while trying to fend off his critics in the Legislature.