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Walz says his budget will reduce racial disparities in Minnesota

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Gov. Tim Walz presented first state budget
Gov. Tim Walz presented his first state budget and addressed its priorities on Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2019.
Tim Nelson | MPR News file

As he presented his budget last week, Gov. Tim Walz made it clear that he believes more needs to be done to help Minnesota's racial minorities and to improve equity.

"Whether in Greater Minnesota or in the urban core, communities of color and Native American communities in our state face unacceptable racial disparities," he said. "Our budget takes meaningful action to address these disparities and ensure every Minnesotan has the opportunity to build a better life for their family."

Walz is proposing a new Community Solutions Fund that would provide grants to local groups to address children's health care issues. He said the program could respond to specific needs better than a uniform statewide approach.

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs House Health and Human Services Policy Committee, likes the proposal.

"Acknowledging that we need to go into those communities of color and use the wisdom and the cultural pieces of those communities as the solution for creating better opportunities is huge for me," Moran said. "I believe it is so true and so needed."

The governor's budget includes funding increases for the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage, Indian Affairs Council and the Minnesota Council of Latino Affairs. Moran said the groups, known as the state's ethnic councils, play a key role in connecting communities of color to state government.

"The councils are under-resourced. They are underutilized," Moran said.

Walz wants to address education disparities through increased school funding and support for community schools, American Indian tribal schools and programs to recruit teachers of color.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said Republicans are talking about racial disparities, too. But unlike Walz, their priority is a contentious proposal for tax breaks to organizations that help minority students attend the school of their choice — public or private — through scholarships.

"I've always said education funding is important, so is innovation," he said. "We have to be looking at things differently if what we're doing isn't working. And racial disparity in Minnesota, particularly in inner city schools, is way greater than it needs to be. So, let's try something new."

Gazelka and other Republicans have criticized the governor's overall budget proposal as too expensive and an unnecessary growth of state government.

One proposal from Walz would grow the Department of Human Rights by a whopping 53 percent. His $4.2 million plan would allow the small state agency to add staff and open four new regional offices to investigate discrimination complaints. Walz said it would put the department on a "transformational path" and promote equity in every corner of the state.

Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said the proposal is fantastic.

"I think that there is still a lot of discrimination that is not talked about or not reported or underreported," he said. "I think that that is really important around human rights, making it a fully functional partner of his Cabinet place, as opposed to just kind of a place that was off to the side."

If it succeeds, the governor's proposal would be a big change for an agency that has faced the threat of budget reductions for years. Just last session, Republican lawmakers unsuccessfully proposed cutting the department's budget by 30 percent.

But a key Republican is taking a wait and see approach.

Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer of Big Lake, the chair of the state government finance and policy committee, said the plan needs scrutiny.

"In general, when I think of roads and bridges, education, health and human services priorities, it's going to have to compete with those very urgent matters," she said.