Minority legislators attempt to address issues of inequality

The Colorado Statesman

Black and Latino Democrats this year are planning legislation to address economic disparities between white Coloradans and Coloradans of color.

Their attempt to address inequality comes after controversies this summer in which two Republicans were accused of insensitive remarks and actions during meetings of the Economic Opportunity Poverty Reduction Task Force in August.

Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, linked poor health within black and Latino communities to diets and foods like barbecued chicken. She went on to say that Mexicans eat vegetables in Mexico but stop eating healthy foods when they come to the United States.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, then found herself in the crossfire when she brought a box of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen chicken for lunch during the next task force meeting in early September. Some said Saine brought the chicken to be disruptive, though she maintains that she was simply supplementing her lunch, and that there was never intent to protest the backlash against Marble.

Democrats still seized the opportunity to point to a trend toward greater disparity between whites and communities of color. They believe the conversation starts with sensitivity. Some of those discussions are carrying into the legislative session.

“Last year we started off the session having a sensitivity training with both the House and the Senate together… Do we need to have more of those? Yes,” Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, told The Colorado Statesman at the joint Black and Latin@ Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado reception held just before the start of the session.

“I won’t even beat around the bush about it,” he continued. “We need to work together to make sure that we are respectful of each other.”

The theme of the reception was celebrating diversity — something that Melton and others feel should be a greater priority under the Gold Dome.

In addition to his concerns with Marble and Saine, Melton pointed to remarks made by Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs in November when he commented that the country already has “someone from Kenya as president of the United States.”

Hill was making a joke speaking about his time in Kenya doing missionary work, though some did not find it so funny. He said desperate Democrats took the joke out of context.

Melton also pointed to an incident last year in which Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, was accused of attempting to delay a press conference scheduled by Democrats to unveil gun control proposals by hijacking a resolution on the Emancipation Proclamation.

McNulty offered a last-minute amendment to add the full text of the proclamation to the resolution and have it read aloud, thereby delaying passage and potentially stalling the Democrats’ press conference. But McNulty said that was never his intention. Speculation still continues to run wild.

“It just goes to this whole thing, are we really being sensitive toward one another?” asked Melton.

“I don’t know if people are just speaking faster than they’re thinking, or if there’s some sentiment festering underneath,” he added. “But either way, people are being hurt by what’s been happening.”

Melton is not alone.

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, also believes there is a greater need for sensitivity. Salazar is the co-chairman of the Colorado Democratic Latin@ Caucus. He believes change must come from within the Republican Party itself.

“They’re not going to listen to us. Their own members, the very few they have, their own members have to bring them to account on what they say,” declared Salazar. “It’s their members that need to educate them, because they’re not going to listen to us. And that’s a shame. Because we’d be willing to sit down and talk to them, but they’re not going to listen to us…

“This isn’t about being the P.C. police, for God’s sake…” he added.

Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, chairwoman of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus, is also concerned about some of the remarks from the Republican caucus.

“We just want people to be more sensitive in the way that we work together,” said Williams. “Don’t be stereotypical.”

For her part, Marble believes the sensitivity issue is sometimes blown out of proportion. She said she brought up the issue of diets in minority communities because there can be a genetic predisposition to certain diseases such as diabetes.

Marble said that her family is quite diverse, including many different races, ethnicities and religions

“We talk honestly, we talk openly and freely, there’s no sensitivity…” explained Marble.

“We all have genetic traits…” she continued. “That’s what I was bringing up…

“But where is the discussion going to start? Marble asked. “A quarter of those blacks who die from heart disease and diabetes, those can be prevented if we’re given the right information… We can’t force them to stop doing what they choose to do, but to give them the information. These are our families and our neighbors in the black community…

“Honestly, I learned how to smoke meat from my black friends down in Texas because they lived with me… and stayed at my house…” Marble recalled. “Did we talk about cooking? Yes. The whole time.”

She said people should get over their sensitivities to advance honest and open conversations when it comes to addressing disparities.

“If there’s sensitivities, that’s the way it is,” opined Marble. “People aren’t all the same. You don’t just cookie-cutter them out and say, ‘You have to listen to this’. But it would be nice to have an honest conversation to help educate them on what is actually happening and to prevent that with diet and exercise.

“Don’t let your sensitivities get in the way of a healthy lifestyle, or educating yourself about new things…” she concluded.

Saine also rejects the notion that there needs to be more sensitivity training in the legislature in order to advance conversations around economic disparities.

“It seems that we tend to use those sensitivity issues as tools in political debate and that’s not always so helpful, and yet during session we work together rather well,” she surmised.

“If we want civility, maybe we should not use that as a political tool,” Saine continued. “Maybe we should concentrate on real solutions like getting government out of the way of business.”

Addressing inequality

Williams said a good start would be if Republicans back several Democratic proposals that aim to address issues around inequality.

“We’re just hopeful that people will focus on the policy, what’s good for Coloradans, and that issues of diversity will be treated in a more sensitive fashion, because we represent all Coloradans,” she said.

The big policy item for the two minority caucuses would be addressing disparities on state procurement contracts. The proposal, which has not yet been introduced, would request a study on possible disparities.

A firm would look at the contracts that the state has dispersed and then determine if there is equity in the awarding of those contracts for minorities, women, veterans and the disabled.

“What we hope to do is by taking those facts and where there are those disparities be able to run legislation that would improve the economic equity of the rewarding of those contracts,” explained Williams.

A similar measure died last year, despite having bipartisan support. It passed through the House, but when it got to the Senate, it did not pass out of committee. Williams is hopeful for this year.

“We’re meeting with members of the Senate to determine what we can do better to gain their support for this bill,” she said.

“We need to start figuring out where there are gaps in contracts being awarded and also help those minority business owners know what they need to start procuring some of those contracts,” added Melton.

Lawmakers this year may also attempt to tweak a measure from last year that offered driver’s licenses to all residents of Colorado, including undocumented immigrants. Melton said there have been some implementation hurdles that need to be addressed.

And the legislature is in the midst of taking up several measures recommended by the Economic Opportunity Poverty Reduction Task Force, including measures that would:

• Expand grants for real property tax assistance, which includes property and specific ownership taxes, or tax equivalent payments, as well as heat or fuel assistance for low-income seniors and the disabled;

• Expand childcare expense tax credits for low-income families;

• Provide state funding for adult education and literacy programs;

• Allow the state to invest public funds into Community Development Financial Institutions, which serve to assist people and businesses in getting capital and credit; and

• Expand aid to the needy and disabled under the Department of Human Services.

Meanwhile, the House Local Government Committee on Wednesday advanced a measure that would expand the availability of affordable housing. House Bill 1017 passed on a 7-4 Democratic party-line vote. It now moves to Finance.

“Ultimately this is about making sure lower-income families across Colorado have an affordable place to live,” said Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, sponsor of the bill. “This bill will increase access to capital for developers, who will get more of these projects started.”

The measure would provide funding for the construction of up to 800 units of low-income housing this year.

But Republicans say they are more interested in impacting the root cause of economic disparities. Saine, who found herself in a controversial spotlight over the “chicken-gate” incident, said the measures being proposed by Democrats — including the procurement study — don’t lead to a solution.

“A lot of the solutions that came out of the Poverty Task Force are treating the symptoms and not the cause,” she explained. “If we can reduce burdensome regulations and rules for all businesses and create jobs; a job is one of the best ways to lift people out of poverty on a long-term basis, and long-term stability to keep them out of poverty.”

Saine is sponsoring a bill with Marble, Senate Bill 63, which would require mandatory reviews by state agencies of existing rules to determine whether they should be continued, amended or repealed. The measure codifies an executive order signed by the governor. It has bipartisan sponsorship.

“That will treat some of the roots of the cause as far as poverty being a condition of some of the economic downturn and helping our businesses, especially our small businesses, as much as possible so that the folks who work for them can thrive and they can add more jobs,” said Saine.

Saine also believes in empowering private nonprofits and charities to assist with closing some of the gaps.

“Government never does anything as well as the private sector does when it comes to large-scale economic benefits, economic drivers and innovation,” she said.

Marble agrees, adding, “Everyone has a place if we would really take a look at easing up regulations and letting these businesses hire people instead of complying with so many regulations… Heavy regulations decrease jobs in every sector.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com