Guest Columns

WILLIAMS: SENATE LOOKED BACKWARDS WITH BUSINESS AS USUAL

Minority businesses are being shut out, but we’ll never know with such outdated info

GUEST COLUMNIST

Our great state suffered a major setback last week when my colleagues on the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee decided to vote against 21st century Colorado in favor of 20th century business as usual.

That’s unfortunate considering House Bill 1285, with House Committee bi-partisan support, would have made a major statement to state residents and the rest of the nation that Colorado is a good place to do business. Our legislation would have been a big step in the right direction: determining whether barriers to government contracting and procurement actually do exist, as we suspect, for underutilized businesses owned by women, minorities, veterans and persons with disabilities. Yet, because of our misguided friends in the Senate, we may never know.

A very recent and eye-opening I-News Network study — released before the eve of HB 1285’s introduction – shows us that many “minority gains made during the 1960s and 1970s have eroded with time.” This report dealt a blow to the conventional wisdom of some who believed Colorado had been moving forward. But, the reality of challenges faced by underserved populations in our state is exacerbated by barriers which keep minority businesses locked out of government procurement opportunities. Not knowing where Colorado stands with respect to its rapidly growing minority population will only maintain a status quo where most minority businesses are systematically left out.

Based on recent data, our state’s minority communities are stuck in vicious cycles of poverty, high unemployment, high dropout rates and crime. Partisans and ideologues on the right are quick to argue that all it takes is a simple “bootstrap” approach, as if the playing field is always leveled and people of color have never worked hard. But how can we expect diverse populations in Colorado to create wealth or build assets through business ownership when they are actively excluded from numerous opportunities?

We know this is the case from the last extensive disparity study conducted by a Colorado government institution in 2009. The Colorado Department of Transportation study, one of our largest agencies, reviewed data between 2002 through 2007 and found that “M/W/DBE [minority and women-owned disadvantaged business enterprises] … were significantly underutilized as subcontractors.” M/W/DBE prime contractors were only receiving 5.1 percent of total construction contracts, 16.7 percent of total consulting contracts. African American firms, for example, were only receiving .40 percent of all construction subcontracting dollars during that period.

The problem here is that between the older CDOT disparity survey and the more recent I-News Network study, there’s not a whole lot of empirical evidence suggesting things are getting better for Colorado minorities. And if the CDOT study showed outrageous rates of minority firm underutilization before the recession set in, we can only imagine how much worse those rates were at a time of great economic distress.

Yet, we have no way of really knowing for sure. The CDOT data is now outdated, as is federal Department of Commerce minority business data from 2002. Even a Republican-dominated U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2006 recommended in its examination of disparity studies that “states and localities must discard disparity studies conducted using data that is more than five years old. Researchers must use current data.”

My colleagues in the Senate seem adverse to data collection or accurately quantifying major challenges in our state when it involves our underserved minority citizens. Not only is that wrong, but it’s not the Colorado we know and love. We can do much better than that. This is an opportunity to re-invigorate our core democratic values. A disparity study might force us to all face some very uncomfortable facts, but we can all agree that it will make Colorado a better place for everyone.

Rep. Angela Williams represents HD 7 in Denver. She is chair of the House Business, Labor Economic and Workforce Development Committee. She can be reached via Twitter @CORepAWilliams.