What funding did survive was a start at best
Voices for Racial Justice’s (VFRJ) 10th annual Legislative Report Card gave the 2015-16 Minnesota Legislature a failing grade after this year’s session. The body failed to pass nearly half of the racial equity bills proposed in this year’s session.
“The legislature earned an F,” VFRJ Research and Policy Director Brett Grant told reporters during the June 29 press conference at the State Office Building in St. Paul. Of the 58 total bills relating to racial equity that were introduced to the legislature during the 2015-16 sessions, only 27 got to the floor to be heard by a committee. Some were standalone bills and others were included in larger omnibus bills, Grant pointed out.
“This grade does not mean that good things did not happen for racial equity,” said Grant. Such bills as advancing Tribal Sovereignty for Native American Minnesotans and controlled substance sentencing reform were positives. “But what this grade does mean [is] that not enough was done to advance racial equity.”
The $35 million package passed in this year’s session “and $17 million in ongoing funding isn’t enough” to help address racial equity, Grant added. “It’s a start, but it is not enough.”
A total of 24 state representatives and 11 state senators individually were graded high and honored as 2015-16 Racial Equity Champions, including the three Black legislators — Sen. Jeff Hayden (A+), Sen. Bobby Joe Champion (A) and Rep. Rena Moran (A). All but three legislators VFRJ honored were DFLers.
However, three Republicans — Sen. David Senjem (Rochester), Sen. Branden Petersen (Andover), and Rep. Rod Hamilton (Mountain Lake) — all received a grade of B.
“We do have very close friends” in the state legislature who are Republicans “who understand our needs and issues,” said Sen. Patricia Torres Ray (DFL-Minneapolis), who was among several lawmakers present at the conference. “And we have people who definitely do not [understand our needs and issues] in both the Senate and the House.”
Grant, who joined VFRJ last year, admittedly was caught off guard while doing his analysis for this year’s report card. He told the MSR, “I got here in October  and heard that Minnesota is really progressive. I looked at last year’s report card and it was a B… That’s a huge drop. It’s a wake-up call.”
“Racial inequity” has made Minnesota less than its nationwide reputation for being a progressive state, he continued. “It’s time for this state to really mean it when they say it is a progressive state.”
“I don’t think we can point to one single person but at policies and institutional practices,” answered Grant to a reporter’s question on who in the state capitol is at fault.
“We have seen racial disparities continue and even worsen,” said VFRJ Executive Director Vina Kay, who told reporters that before their first report card in 2006, most legislators didn’t take racial equity seriously in their legislation efforts. “We have seen important legislation to break down racial inequities over the years,” such as “ban the box,” she pointed out.
The card “is part of our community toolkit to hold our legislators accountable,” said Kay, who reiterated that her organization does not endorse candidates or political parties. “This report card will inform the public…about the issues that matter” for the 2016 state and national elections this fall, she said.
“Political gridlock” has hurt the state, said Mesa Latina Policy Analyst Felipe Illescas, one of several individuals who also spoke during last week’s one-hour press conference. “We want a legislature that put families ahead of politics.”
University of Minnesota Associate Culture and Teaching Professor Vichet Chhuon spoke on the need for more teachers of color in Minnesota schools. “It’s not about more people of color in the classroom but looking at things differently. We also need people of color in White schools,”, he stated.
Jazzmen Shipp has an incarcerated brother. She joined VFRJ to speak on his behalf to restore voting rights when he returns to society. “I vote because my brother cannot,” said Shipp. “I am a voice for me and for him.”
“The result of the report card is a serious message,” said VFRJ board member and community organizer Ashley Fairbanks.
Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsay, who also attended last week’s press conference, told the MSR, “It is very important work that the Voices for Racial Justice… published another report, and [I] look forward to working with them.”
The 2015-16 Minnesota Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity can be found at http://voicesforracialjustice.org/tools-resource/legislative-report-card.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.