Dept. of Human Rights faces cuts

Last year, the department fielded 1,264 complaints of discrimination.

Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey discusses the effects the budget cuts will have on his department on Thursday in St. Paul.

Jules Ameel

Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey discusses the effects the budget cuts will have on his department on Thursday in St. Paul.

by Mike Mullen

Only a few weeks after accepting the job as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Kevin Lindsey began wondering what kind of department heâÄôd have left.
In his budget, Gov. Mark Dayton recommended Human Rights receive full funding, at $6.7 million. But the department is facing a 50 percent cut in the SenateâÄôs public safety omnibus bill. The HouseâÄôs version went further still, slashing the departmentâÄôs budget to $2.3 million. Lindsey said when he accepted the job, he knew heâÄôd be facing âÄúsome level of cut,âÄù given the stateâÄôs budget crisis.
âÄúBut I have to say,âÄù he said, âÄúI was very surprised to the extent of the level of cut.âÄù
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, who chairs the Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee and will sit on the conference committee that reconciles the Senate and House versions, said public safety matters like the police and corrections departments took precedent over MDHR.
Limmer said he used a âÄúconstitutional mandateâÄù standard to decide which programs to cut. The state constitution does not provide for a Human Rights Department, Limmer said.
Lindsey said that from a legal standpoint, Limmer was âÄúabsolutely correct.âÄù
 âÄúBut that doesnâÄôt necessarily mean that itâÄôs not a core function of government,âÄù Lindsey said.
On the House side, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, chair of the House Public Safety and Crime Prevention Policy and Finance Committee, took issue with the way MDHR presented itself.
âÄúTheir website looked like âÄòAmericaâÄôs Most Wanted,âÄôâÄù he said. âÄúThey bragged about the fines that they levied on people, and their accomplishments seemed more to be centered around fines than it did education and outreach.âÄù
Cornish said MDHR could attempt to complete its mission for education and outreach using federal money, which Lindsey said was improbable, given that âÄúa very small fractionâÄù of its budget comes from the federal government.
Last year, the Department of Human Rights fielded 1,264 complaints from 803 different people. The majority of these cases were complaints of employment discrimination. Disability (230), sexual (185) and racial (141) discrimination make up the bulk of employment complaints.
Cases, including those in which no violation is found, typically take more than a year to work their way through the department.
Currently, investigator Jill Keene is actively handling nine different investigations, with another 16 sitting idly on her desk. She most complainants understand the lag time when she explains her case load.
Lindsey said the department is technically mandated to resolve cases within a year, but it cannot.
âÄúThe numbers are what they are,âÄù Lindsey said. âÄúBecause of staffing cuts and lack of funding over the last couple of years, the department does not have enough staff to adequately address all the charges which come to it.âÄù
Lindsey said that if the departmentâÄôs budget were cut 50 percent or more, itâÄôs possible cases could take three full years to resolve, which he says is âÄúintolerable.âÄù
Keene has handled a couple of âÄúPriority AâÄù cases for which safety reasons have allowed the department to fast-track a complaint. One case involved a teenager with mental health issues who was prescribed a service dog.
The trailer park the boyâÄôs family lived in didnâÄôt allow dogs, and said the family had to move. After KeeneâÄôs investigation found discrimination was âÄúmore likely than not,âÄù the commissioner passed the case to the Attorney GeneralâÄôs office, which handles the conciliation process. The boyâÄôs family was successful âÄî the trailer park changed its policy, and employees received training on avoiding discrimination.
Limmer is upset by charges that defunding human rights was based on a lack of caring for minorities. He defended his record, citing his role as co-author of a bill on racial bias in the courts and as chief author of a bill that would punish high school teams whose fans chanted racial epithets.
Limmer said the cuts facing MDHR were borne not out of ideology, but the budget crisis.
âÄúIn my perspective, this is strictly temporary,âÄù Limmer said. âÄúThis is to get us through the financial hardship of our state.âÄù
Lindsey said he knows there are tough decisions to make, but even a temporary cut of this size is too much.
 âÄúThis [department] is mission-critical,âÄù he said. âÄúThis is vitally important.âÄù
Keene, started out seven years ago as a half-time reader for a vision-impaired investigator. Then, there were 15 or 16 investigators, she said. Now, there are eight, and budget cuts could mean even fewer.
âÄúThere have been some cuts,âÄù Keene said. âÄúBut I think weâÄôre doing a good job for the people of Minnesota as we are. I would hope that that would be the case in the future.âÄù