House Republicans want to shave $1.4 million off Minnesota's state budget. Specifically, they want to slash it from the Department of Human Rights.
It’s not as though they picked a bloated target for a trim. The DHR happens to be one of Minnesota’s smallest departments. The cuts would gut it by more than 30 percent and prompt layoffs for 18 people, which amounts to 40 percent of its staff.
But this tiny department has one of the government’s biggest responsibilities: investigating discrimination cases and human rights violations.
The DHR exists for people who have been unfairly treated and have literally nowhere else to turn. Without it, there would be people who could not afford to seek justice if they were, say, fired because they were gay, or refused service because they were black.
Back in 2011, under Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the DHR had 35 employees, only had offices in the Twin Cities, and was haunted by one phrase that had become a notorious point of tension: “docket and dismiss.”
“What the department was doing was looking at a case and saying, ‘I think our resources would be better spent on Case A rather than Case B or C,” Commissioner Kevin Lindsey says. More cases would be filed away and dismissed for lack of resources than investigated. At times, that made filing a discrimination claim seem hopeless.
Since then, the staff has been augmented and the docket and dismiss program eliminated. But Lindsey worries about what would happen with fewer investigators. He also worries about burgeoning programs that would have to go by the wayside.
For example: the human rights office in St. Cloud. It’s the only regional office outside of the Twin Cities. Until 2016, it had an enforcement officer come in from St. Paul one day every month – leaving one day to investigate discrimination against St. Cloud’s growing African immigrant population.
There were incidents of East African women being spat on and called terrorists, and of people wrapping bacon around the doorknob of a Somali-owned business. At least now there’s someone there to witness things like this happen, and a concerted effort for police to meet with community members and rebuild some trust that the city will protect everyone who lives there.
Then there are the investigations into discrimination when it comes to who gets expelled or suspended in schools. The department recently found that students of color compose 31 percent of the population, yet receive 66 percent of all suspensions and expulsions. Meanwhile, students with disabilities represent 14 percent of the populations, but are getting kicked out of school 43 percent of the time. Ten Minnesota school districts and charter schools were brought to the table and forced to make things right.
Better staffing has also given Minnesotans speedier attention. Before 2011, it took 430 days to close a case. Today, they average out at 290.
These advances will go by the wayside with a slimmed-down budget. “If this were to come to pass, it would be a devastating blow to the department,” Lindsey says. “A lot of our services would come to a complete halt.”
Gov. Mark Dayton has made a statement saying he'd veto any bill that cuts previously established state agency budgets, and the DHR got a two-year budget last year, so for now, there's a safeguard in place.