A key Republican accused Democrats in the Iowa House of playing “the race card” to lodge complaints about a proposed three percent cut in next year’s budget for the Iowa Department of Human Rights.

The debate began with these comments from Representative Bruce Hunter, a Democrat from Des Moines who is white:  “If you commit a crime in Iowa and you’re African American, your chance of going to jail is 14 times greater than if you’re a Caucasian…Even though they make up only two percent of the state’s overall population, African Americans make up over 24 percent of the prison population.”

Hunter argued that was one reason the Department of Human Rights needs more money to operate. Representative Ralph Watts, a Republican from Adel, responded.

“We heard some language here about severe cuts. We heard the legislature doesn’t care about human rights,” Watts said. “Representative Hunter, I’m not sure exactly how to handle it, but I am concerned that you would bring the race card into this argument.”

Watts went on to accuse managers in the agency of lying to legislators last year and again this year about details of the department’s budget.

“If they do that next year, my feeling is their entire budget should go,” Watts said.

Representative Helen Miller, a Democrat from Fort Dodge who is black, said the debate made her “extremely uncomfortable.”

“The first time I showed up an ag committee meeting eight years ago, people came up to the desk and told me that I was sitting in the wrong place, that that table was for legislators,” Miller said. “There was an assumption that because I was black…that I did not belong.”

Miller told her colleagues to open their eyes and ears and realize the Department of Human Rights is needed to combat the discrimination that’s still happening in Iowa. After more than half an hour of debate, Republicans voted down a Democratic bid to add more money to the Department of Human Rights budget, which was cut 10 percent last year.

AUDIO of the debate