Police shooting, disparities spur talk of special session

Hundreds of marchers walked into Minneapolis.
Hundreds of protesters from Black Lives Matter and their supporters marched peacefully into downtown Minneapolis and after a rally, walked back to the 4th Precinct.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Minnesota's lawmakers and community leaders are brainstorming how to aid their state's hurting black community in a possible special session, though some acknowledge the issues may prove too weighty to take on in a one-day legislative blitz.

This month's death of a black man shot by Minneapolis police only amplified calls to address longstanding -- and widening -- economic disparities between Minnesota's white and black residents.

Though Gov. Mark Dayton and other prominent Democrats have publicly backed tackling such issues, any agenda is murky. It could include some measures the Legislature considered earlier this year, such as workforce development grants to train chronically unemployed minorities and a small business incubator program for minority entrepreneurs. Others have suggested providing financial incentives to businesses to hire minority employees like the state currently does for veterans.

But with Jamar Clark's death leading to high tension between police and protesters outside of a Minneapolis police precinct, Rep. Raymond Dehn said criminal justice matters may need to wait for a full airing in 2016.

"Emotions are raw. The community is in a lot of pain. A lot of people have said a lot of things but we also have to be thoughtful and engage the community on the way they see improving the community and police relationship," said Dehn, a Minneapolis Democrat who represents the north Minneapolis area where Clark was killed.

The Legislature isn't set to return until early March. Dayton's initial request for a special session was meant to extend unemployment benefits for laid-off steelworkers on the state's Iron Range. But top Democrats spurred talk of addressing the longstanding racial disparities as well.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau report shows median incomes for black Minnesota residents plunged by 14 percent from 2013 to 2014, while poverty rates increased from 33 percent to 38 percent. The statewide poverty rate for all races remained stable at 11 percent.

State demographer Susan Brower said there's reason to question whether the one-year swing was as severe as suggested, but that it's indisputable that black residents in Minnesota aren't faring as well as the rest of the state.

Sen. Jeffrey Hayden, one of three black lawmakers in the 201-member state Legislature, wants to start a possible special session with proposals that got a thorough airing last session but didn't make it across the finish line.

"It by no means would solve the issue but it would send a strong signal to these communities that the Legislature is concerned about it and wants to start working on it," the Minneapolis Democrat said. "You're seeing people very isolated in terms of their ability to participate in society -- get a job, take care of their families, buy a home."

Hayden and Dehn both acknowledged that broader proposals may have to wait, such as lowering drug sentencing guidelines, altering policing standards and restoring voting rights to felons more quickly after they're released from prison.

House Republicans have been noncommittal about discussing the economic disparities in a special session, with House Speaker Kurt Daudt saying the Legislature shouldn't single out Iron Range miners or a minority community but instead pass policies that help all residents.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin said she's worried about overloading an agenda.

"Every week there's a new topic," she said. "And it's getting to the point where maybe we should just handle this in 2016," she said.

Regardless of whether a special session takes shape, Hayden said he's preparing bring a full slate of proposals to the 2016 session that are designed to tackle systemic problems.

"We have kicked the can down the road on disparities for a long time," Hayden said.