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Legislative Rules Committee considers racial impact statements for bills
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Legislative Rules Committee considers racial impact statements for bills

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Omaha Sen. Tony Vargas would like the Legislature to consider adding racial impact statements to certain bills when they create fiscal notes. 

He told the Rules Committee on Friday it would help senators to make decisions on bills they are considering. 

Iowa was the first Legislature to require what it called minority impact statements for bills in 2008. Iowa senators created those impact statements as a response to a growing concern that the Iowa prison population was disproportionately full of Latinos and African Americans, Vargas said.  

"Nebraska has this problem, as well," he said. "And one way we can work on addressing it is by having nonpolitical information on how policies would or wouldn't affect minority populations."

Last session, he proposed two rule changes. One would require a racial impact statement for any bill that significantly affects criminal or juvenile justice, but would allow a committee chairman or bill sponsor to request a statement regardless of the bill's subject matter.

The other would direct the Legislature's research office to create an impact statement for bills referred to it. It would allow the office to request cooperation from any state agency or political subdivision as it prepares the statement.

A racial impact statement rule would encourage the Legislature to engage in conversations about race and ethnicity in a matter-of-fact way, he said.  

Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard said it seemed to him that if minorities didn't want a Corrections bill to impact them they shouldn't break the law. 

"So should we have two different types of laws? Those for minorities and those for not-minorities?" he asked Vargas. "Once we get the information, what determination do we make as to what law should we pass? ... The law is the law. ... If you don't want to be affected, don't break the law." 

Vargas said Erdman was demonstrating the kind of conversations the Legislature should have. Some senators may believe there might be biases in the justice system, he said, and it disproportionately is affecting communities of color. If so, something could be done ahead of time to avoid potential biases. 

"I want to present this information so that a senator like you can have this debate based on the data," he said. "But if we didn't have that impact statement, I don't think that we would have the conversation with other senators ... a discourse like this." 

It could lead to the Legislature ensuring it doesn't have blinders on concerning how specific minorities might be affected by a bill, Vargas said. 

Craig Beck, fiscal analyst at OpenSky Policy Institute, told the committee OpenSky strongly believed in evaluating racial impact of proposed legislation.  

"The manner in which state and local governments raise and spend revenue has major implications for racial and ethnic equity," Beck said. "And fiscal policy has too often increased racial disparities in power and wealth."

Fiscal policies, he said, do not need to be explicitly race-based to worsen or perpetuate racial inequities. Such policies as changes in tax codes, the state inheritance tax and the earned-income tax credit program can affect particular racial or ethnic groups. 

OpenSky, he said, is working to incorporate racial equity information in updates of past publications and future analyses, he told the committee. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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