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Dayton unveils budget plan to tackle racial economic disparities

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Gov. Mark Dayton
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton waves after delivering his State of the State address March 9 at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
Jim Mone | AP

Gov. Mark Dayton on Tuesday unveiled his plan to lift the economic prospects for Minnesotans of color.

His supplemental budget proposal suggests using $100 million of the state's $900 million projected surplus to bolster workforce programs, help students stay in college and increase the number of homeowners of color, among other initiatives.

"It would help more Minnesotans gain access to opportunities in our state's growing economy, and help minority entrepreneurs start and grow their businesses," Dayton said in his budget address.

Sondra Samuels, president and CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone, said the money Dayton is devoting to support families and children who'd otherwise be left behind is a clear sign of purpose. 

"There's this wonderful conspiracy of commitment and momentum to regain our dignity in the state, or should I say, to gain it."

But Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, says Dayton is investing in agencies that have historically not done enough to support communities of color. 

"I really do believe the governor means well, but he's given two-thirds of the money away to other state agencies that have not proven to have a level of sensitivity around these issues, or a real grasp of how to deal with these issues in real time, in a way that's gonna make us all proud," Champion said.

Dayton has suggested diverting $67 million of the equity package toward grants and spending that would be administered by departments in charge of things like economic development and education. He says that leaves $33 million for lawmakers and community groups to find other initiatives aimed at reducing the disparities.

The governor's plan emphasizes education. He wants to lower college tuition for teachers to make the profession more appealing, and recruit more teachers of color to reflect an increasingly diverse student body. 

Dayton's plan aims to help college students who are at risk of dropping out — especially at the state's community colleges. 

The Office of Higher Education would dole out $20 million in grants intended to provide students with mentors and other assistance to help close the graduation gap between whites and students of color.

Larry Pogemiller, the state's higher education commissioner, said he wants to help colleges change the culture from sink-or-swim to one of support. 

"You can't just sit back and say, 'They weren't prepared enough. Sorry,'" Pogemiller said. "You have to say, 'They're here. Let's do something with it now. Let's graduate these students.'"

The programs and grants Dayton has recommended are anything but a sure fix. 

Law professor and Minneapolis NAACP president Nekima Levy-Pounds said it's not clear that the support programs in Dayton's budget are tailored to the communities he's trying to help.

"The racial income gaps in our state will not be solved without concrete, targeted solutions focused on specific populations and addressing their needs," she said. "If the governor, for example, initiates a jobs program, there needs to be jobs program specifically targeted at the African-American community."

It's also one-time money, and some advocates wonder if that's enough to narrow the gaps. According to the state's figures, the poverty rate for U.S.-born African-American families in Minnesota is four and a half times greater than that of whites. 

Dayton stressed that his ideas are just a starting point. State lawmakers will consider Dayton's plan and propose their own before the session ends in May.