State laws can accidently harm communities of color

Thissen/Hayden bill would try to minimize the damage

Paul Thissen
Paul Thissen

For all of Minnesota’s image as a progressive, forward-looking state, it has become clear that not every Minnesotan has made much, if any, progress. In fact, the unavoidable truth is that communities of color have lagged far behind their White counterparts and have even lost ground in every key area.

“We’re learning more and more that the decisions we make at the legislature have unintended consequences in certain areas, in particular in communities of color,” says Paul Thissen, DFL Minority Leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives. “It’s not necessarily intentional, but the impact on those communities is bad nonetheless.”

Thissen has proposed a bill to be taken up when the Minnesota State Legislature convenes this Tuesday in an effort to eliminate the unintended negative consequences for communities of color that can result from legislative policies. Joining Thissen in drafting and proposing this legislation, known as HF 2198 in the House, is DFL State Senator Jeff Hayden, whose Senate version of the bill is known as SF2054 [see “Bill would boost welfare benefits for first time in 30 years” story on this page].

Thissen provided an example of one legislative unintended consequence that negatively affected people of color and lower-income earners: lead disclosure requirements when buying or selling a home. The disclosures “led to lower lead poisoning in kids but didn’t work for communities of color, who rent more than buy,” Thissen said. “Lead exposure increased in children of color — the law should have applied more to rentals than sales because people of color don’t buy homes as much as the more affluent.

“The other thing,” Thissen added, “is that the disparities are sometimes hidden when we think we’re doing great. At the legislature we don’t often think about the places where we’re not doing so great. So the motivation was to try to be more deliberate and thoughtful as we’re making public policy decisions and thinking about ‘How is this going to affect those communities?’”

The proposal calls for the Commissioner of Management and Budget to analyze legislation with an eye to identifying the potential negative impacts of bills on communities of color. The legislature has in place what are called “fiscal notes” and “local impact notes” to be made accessible to the public through a legislative website. The public hearing and input process remains in place, and Thissen anticipates that these public “notes” will augment that process.

This added measure, Thissen said, “could actually inform the debate on a particular bill. That would be the goal. We’re getting it out to the public in as many ways as we can and in ways that have worked for other things.”

In the case that the Commissioner does identify a negative potential impact, Thissen asserted that “It would be a significant piece of information that the legislature would take into account when we’re making our decisions. It wouldn’t be a situation where if it increases disparities, the bill would be tossed out. What I think would happen is that legislators would try to figure out the reason disparities would be increased and how the legislation could be fixed so that it doesn’t have that impact.”

The proposed bill states in part that “for purposes of this section, disparities means a difference in economic, etc. population defined by socioeconomic status, etc.”

When asked which data would be used to make those determinations, Thissen agreed that no database is yet in place, but he anticipates that compilations of data will be acquired and stored once the process is in place and as it progresses.

“I think that’s going to be one of the challenges we have with implementation,” he continued. “I think it’s going to depend on the issue. If it’s an issue impacting housing, the Minnesota Housing Finance Authority should be the one doing the analysis with whatever data they have.”

Thissen added, “I think another benefit of this is that it would also identify areas where we don’t have the information to actually do this analysis. There are many areas where we actually don’t have the kind of data that would tell us that this community is doing better than that community in a particular place… So I actually think that one of the added benefits of this process is that we’ll identify those holes.”

Also built into the bill is an ongoing evaluation process. Thissen said that the “note” approach would “also make sure that the disparities analysis carries through to an agency that is implementing the legislation, and then after the fact, having an evaluation component to see if the public policy that was adopted actually had the intended impact on disparities, or didn’t have the intended effect that we anticipated.”

While it is still too early to evaluate the effectiveness of this bill, Thissen said, “I think it would have an impact on debate in two ways: “One is, hopefully, it would inform the debate and we’d say, ‘Let’s try to figure out a way to fix this.’ I also imagine that there will be debate where people will say, ‘The commissioner’s analysis is wrong and it’s not really going to have that impact on disparities…’

“What you would hope is that this disparities bill would be a chance to step back and say, “If we adopt this policy, these are the groups that we’re not going to be affecting by this policy, and a red flag would be raised.”

Thissen concluded his comments to us by saying, “At the bottom line, I think disparities in the state are really an emergency that we haven’t dealt with, that we haven’t given a reasonable response to. We need to take a number of actions, but one of the things we can do is change the culture and the way we think about those issues here at the legislature.

“I’m hopeful we can make progress on it this year, because more than any other legislative session that I’ve seen, the issue of the disparities that we have in our state is closer to front and center than it ever has been before. I think that report that came out showing African Americans dropping by 14 percent kind of puts things into sharp focus.

“This bill is going to force us to think about disparities in a way that we haven’t done before.”


Isaac Peterson welcomes reader responses to