ST. PAUL — Walz administration officials on Monday, March 29, called on the state Legislature to green-light funding for the creation of a new office of equity in grantmaking to expand access to state and federal funds to communities of color and other underserved groups.

During a virtual roundtable, Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said the administration had sought to "disrupt" state government systems to make resources and opportunities more readily available to underserved communities in the state. And as a next step, she hoped that lawmakers would help prioritize access to state grant funds for those groups.

"The (pandemic's) disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities makes it even more critically important that we make sure that we have systems and processes in place that are in a position to help those who need help most," Flanagan said. “We feel the urgency of this moment and hope the Legislature will also step up as our partners right now."

MORE: Read more from reporter Dana Ferguson in St. Paul

The state issues hundreds of grants worth millions of dollars to organizations that support workers and businesses each year. And despite efforts to make sure communities and organizations around the state know about those opportunities and are able to apply, the state has work to do yet in making conversations about those grants more inclusive, Department of Employment and Economic Development Commissioner Steve Grove said.

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The Department of Administration, which handles purchasing for the state, saw double the amount of spending with businesses owned by minorities, women, veterans and people with disabilities after creating the Office of Equity in Procurement, Commissioner Alice Roberts-Davis said. And setting up an office with oversight of state grants could have a similar impact, she said.

Philanthropic organization leaders said the state could take small steps to bring in a broader pool of applicants like fully opening up the application process online and making sure language about eligibility clears states that small businesses can apply.

“We need to punctuate the fact that as a state we have so many great things that are going for us and if we can figure out how to accelerate this work ... really creates a playbook not just for our state but for the rest of the country,” McKnight Foundation President Tonya Allen said. “How do we take this moment to really lift it up and make it not just a political platform but a way that the state does business?”

Lawmakers are on a 10-day Easter/Passover recess this week and are set to resume the legislative session next week. During the remaining two months of the legislative session, they will weigh decisions about what they'll include or leave out of the next two-year budget.

Follow Dana Ferguson on Twitter @bydanaferguson, call 651-290-0707 or email dferguson@forumcomm.com