Legislature Nearly Guts Office of Ethnic Affairs | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Legislature Nearly Guts Office of Ethnic Affairs 

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A vestige of the civil-rights movement enshrined in state government for decades was nearly eliminated in the 2011 Legislative session. Despite lobbying from multiple mayors and 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.

State officials say the future of the office is uncertain. No planning was done in advance of the session to prepare for a scaled-back operation because no one was warned the office’s funding of $750,000 would drop to $250,000. “It would have been nice to preplan and have something laid out prior to [the budget cut], but that didn’t occur,” says Department of Community & Culture spokeswoman Claudia Nakano. The Office of Ethnic Affairs is a subset of the Department of Community & Culture.

The Legislature has slated for interim study the possible elimination of the Department of Community & Culture itself and reassignment of responsibilities to other departments. Community & Culture is also home to the Office of Housing & Community Development, the State Library and Arts & Museums.

The cut comes as Utah's ethnic communities are growing rapidly. Utah’s population in 1960 was 98 percent white, but that has dropped to less than 81 percent in 2009, which “represents an unprecedented increase in the diversity of Utah, unlike any time since the taking of the original territorial Census in 1850,” wrote Pamela Perlich of the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research in her paper “Utah Minorities.” There are more than 19,000 minority-owned businesses in Utah; that’s up 63 percent just since 2002, according to a 2007 Census Survey of Business Owners, totaling $3.2 billion in receipts in 2007.

There’s some confusion about exactly who wanted to cut the office or why. Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jani Iwamoto says, “Herbert was saying, ‘It’s the Legislature,’ and the Legislature was saying ‘Go see Herbert.’ ”

Gov. Gary Herbert’s spokeswoman, Allyson Isom, says Herbert lobbied to save Office of Ethnic Affair’s funding. For most of the session, the Legislature had zeroed out funding for Ethnic Affairs, but then “back filled” it with $250,000 in the last days.

Iwamoto actively lobbied for sustaining the office’s budget at current levels.

“As of the end of June, there will not be $750,000,” Iwamoto says. “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.”

Rep. Todd Kiser, chair of the Business, Economic Development and Labor Appropriations Committee, said his committee got “mixed signals.” “I don’t think the governor wants to admit this, but the deputy director [of the Department of Community & Culture] had indicated that the governor’s office wanted change,” Kiser says. “I was really shocked when I started getting fingers pointed back at us.” He says the Department of Community & Culture itself—knowing that 7 percent cuts were ordered of every department—offered the Office of Ethnic Affairs as a “less painful” sacrifice, but the governor later pushed back and asked to restore some funding for the office. 

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, and support staff, all of whom are facing potential lay-offs. Ethnic Affairs serves as a liaison between state government and ethnic communities, as well as an advisory office to the governor. Directors conduct cultural competency and sensitivity training for state departments, for example, and organize special events.

Retired judge Raymond Uno, only the eighth ethnic minority to be admitted to the Utah State Bar and a former child internee at Heart Mountain, Wyo., Japanese Internment camp during World War II, says the Office of Ethnic Affairs emerged from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and was first established by Gov. Calvin Rampton and reaffirmed by Gov. Jon Huntsman in 2005. Now 80 years old, Uno says no clear information was given as to why the office was scaled back.

“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.

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.

Iwamoto questions the Legislature’s funding priorities. The state Sports Commission, for example, was slated to received $2.1 million in “back fill” funding even as community members struggled to restore any funding possible for the Office of Ethnic Affairs. “The state of Utah wants to provide the right services and representation for the ethnic community and with that budget cut it’s going to take some planning,” Nakano says.

Planning meetings regarding the reorganization have not yet been scheduled. 

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