Community members are angry that despite lobbying from multiple mayors and a Salt Lake County Council the state Office of Ethnic Affairs received a 66 percent budget reduction, a cut so drastic some say the new "office" won't be more than an employee or two.
The cost-cutting from the 2011 legislative session is still being assessed and state officials say the future of the office is uncertain. The budget cut comes less than a month after the controversial firing of Forrest Cuch, former director of the Division of Indian Affairs, which, like the Office of Ethnic Affairs, is a under the state Department of Community and Culture. The Legislature has
slated for interim study the possible elimination of the entire Department
of Community and Culture, which is also home to the Office of Housing
and Community Development.
Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman Allyson Isom says Herbert's own budget did not propose cuts to Ethnic Affairs, but that the Legislature didn't follow that recommendation. She said Cuch's firing is unrelated to the Ethnic Affairs budget cut but said she could not comment on Cuch's termination until after the governor's office has met privately with tribal leaders about the issue.
For a time, the Legislature had zeroed all funding for Ethnic Affiars, but then "back filled" with $250,000 later in the session. Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jani Iwamoto advocated for sustaining the office's budget at current levels and says considerations of closing the office were a surprise.
"If [Herbert] does nothing, the office is gone," Iwamoto's says, stating the governor should use discretionary funds like federal stimulus dollars to sustain the office's budget at present levels during the interim discussion. "As of the end of June, there will not be $750,000. It will go to $250,000 and there's no way to sustain the office. ... They understand there would be cuts, but this is a 66 percent cut and I don't know many offices that had to do that."
Currently Ethnic Affairs employs five directors--one each for Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Pacific Islander and Black affairs--as well as an overarching director, Jesse Soriano.
Iwamoto says she "heard all along" that Herbert was planning a "commission-style" for Ethnic Affairs, that would eliminate some paid staff and rely on a volunteer commission.
Retired judge Raymond Uno, only the eighth ethnic minority to be admitted to the Utah State Bar (pdf), was like thousands of Japanese Americans at other internment camps during World War II, "incarcerated" at Heart Mountain Wyoming for three years simply because of his family's ethnic origin. His father was a veteran of World War I and died at Heart Mountain.
Uno said the Office of Ethnic Affairs emerged from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and was first established by Governor Calvin Rampton. Now 80 years old, Uno says the Legislature's intent and motivation in cutting the office is unclear.
"The thing that's confusing to me is the reason they have given [for the cut] is the Office was not responding or providing the benefits that legislators and possibly the governor's office wanted. And I'm still not sure what they want," Uno says, citing a fact sheet detailing the office's efforts and successes (see below). "What do they expect the minorities to do? We're not clear on that because those offices have been benefiting the minority communities in ways that are intangible. How to you determine when a family is helped in terms of housing, education or employment?"
According former Governor Jon Huntsman's 2005 executive order sustaining the office, Ethnic Affairs is to serve as a liaison between state government and ethnic communities, as well as an advisory office to the governor.
Mayors Dan Snarr of Murray and Tom Dolan of Sandy both wrote letters on behalf of the office and the Salt Lake County Council passed a resolution asking that the office not be closed.
Isom said the future of the Office of Ethnic Affairs is uncertain and said "we defended funding for the Office of Ethnic Affairs quite aggressively." Iwamoto has her doubts. "I was told from Day 1 ... the idea came from the governor's office for this commission style. ... So Herbert was saying it's the Legislature, and the Legislature was saying 'Go see Herbert.'" Despite claims to the contrary by members of the community, Isom says the governor has no discretionary funds that can be used to sustain the Office of Ethnic Affairs during that time that its future is discussed.
Iwamoto says the process is running backwards. Discussion about the evolution of the office should come before--not after--its budget is slashed, she says. Iwamoto also questions the Legislature's budget priorities where, she says, $1 million for an air show was placed on a higher priority than funding for the Office of Ethnic Affairs. She says the negotiating table is now unfairly tilted toward elimination of the office despite outcry from ethnic communities.
"If we truly have a seat at the table to decide if this commission style is good or not, we need funds to sustain the office until the next Legislative session so the office could truly be a viable option," she says, stating a round of layoffs on July 1 could not be easily reversed. "If it stands the way it is, ethnic communities haven't had a say and there isn't a viable option for an office left."