ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Leaders and advocates from Minnesota’s black community laid out their requests Wednesday for millions of dollars to start an investment program for minority-owned businesses and fund a summer job program for black teens, answering Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for input to assemble a plan to tackle economic gaps.
Dozens of black residents, from neighborhood group leaders to Black Lives Matter organizers who led weeks of demonstrations protesting the death of a black man shot by Minneapolis police last fall, crowded inside a conference room near the state Capitol present their “United Black Legislative Agenda.” A handful of legislators, including Minnesota’s three black lawmakers, joined to support them.
The efforts to narrow longstanding economic inequality have been galvanized by 24-year-old Jamar Clark’s death in November and a recent U.S. Census report showing dropping incomes and a spike in poverty in black Minnesota households. Leaders behind the effort stressed that it’s the right time to start tackling those gaps, given the state’s nearly $900 million budget surplus.
“These issues now have the collective attention of state government,” said Louis Porter, executive director of the Council of Minnesotans of African Heritage.
The group’s vision largely compliments Dayton’s own plan to dedicate $100 million toward reducing racial disparities throughout the state. The Democrat suggested a business loan program for minority business owners, job training and assistance to help black residents buy their first homes, but also left a chunk unspent until lawmakers and community leaders could weigh in.
The plan announced Wednesday also focused on two criminal justice measures that are in front of lawmakers this year. Black Lives Matter Minneapolis activists Mica Grimm and Asha Long called on the Legislature to pass body camera regulations that provide public access to hold police officers accountable and urged lawmakers not to block drastic reductions to prison sentences for drug offenders that take hold this summer.
A new Senate subcommittee created to focus on equality issues, which is led by two black Minnesota senators, could help the new proposals. But they’ll likely face resistance in the Republican-controlled House, where lawmakers have insisted that any efforts to narrow economic gaps need to begin by expanding tax credits for private schools to low-income and minority students.
“As I have said many times, if Democrats are willing to seriously address the achievement gap, I will be flexible in considering their spending proposals,” Rep. Jim Knoblach, a St. Cloud Republican who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement.
The group of black leaders consciously left measures targeting education, job training and homelessness out of the proposal, fearing those issues would be too weighty to tackle in the session’s final six weeks.
But they stressed their platform in 2016 was just the beginning.
“We will be back,” Steve Belton of the Urban League said. “In 2017, 2018 and beyond. This is a start.”
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