PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island has rarely met the requirement to provide 10 percent of state contracts to minority-owned businesses, and that needs to change now, the Rhode Island Legislative Black and Latino Caucus chairwoman said on the Rhode Island Report podcast.
Representative Karen Alzate, a Pawtucket Democrat who was elected to lead the caucus earlier this year, said some penalty must be imposed if that legal requirement continues to be ignored.
Alzate noted the state passed a law 35 years requiring that at least 10 percent of the dollar value of state contracts go to Minority Business Enterprises. But, she said, “It hasn’t been met, and we can’t continue to allow this.”
In the past six years, the 10 percent requirement has only been met twice, and then-Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s administration waived the requirement during the pandemic last year.
Alzate said state contract business would have been especially helpful during the pandemic, which took a disproportionate toll on communities of color.
“We had a really great opportunity to not only meet but probably exceed (the 10 percent mandate), and we didn’t take advantage of that,” she said. “Small businesses in my community, they were hit really hard.”
Governor Daniel J. McKee, has said his administration takes the issue seriously, and on Tuesday he announced that Latino activist Tomás Ávila is the new associate director of the state Office of Diversity, Equity, and Opportunity. Ávila told the Globe that meeting the Minority Business Enterprise requirements will be his priority.
The House and Senate passed legislation barring the state from waiving Minority Business Enterprise requirements during future states of emergency. McKee allowed that bill to become law, but he didn’t sign it, saying that while he’s committed to the Minority Business Enterprise program he did not want to “categorically limit the state’s flexibility in a declared state of emergency.”
Alzate disagreed with McKee’s rationale for not signing the legislation. “I think that in a state of emergency,” she said, “we need all hands on deck.” And to exclude one group of businesses “doesn’t make any sense to me,” she said.
Looking ahead, Alzate said it will be important to include Minority Business Enterprises in the upcoming round of public school construction and renovation projects, such as a proposed new Central Falls High School. “That’s a huge thing in our state,” she said. “And so I know that a lot of our members really want to be able to be partners in that.”
This year’s General Assembly is the most diverse in Rhode Island history, with 21 people of color in the 113-member legislature, and Alzate said the Black and Latino Caucus saw some of its top priorities enacted into law during the legislative sessions that ended July 1.
For example, she noted, the Fair Housing Practices Act now prohibits landlords from refusing to rent to people because they receive government housing vouchers, and the Assembly passed a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage from $11.50 to $15 per hour over four years.
But Alzate said the caucus is still looking to address police misconduct by making changes to the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, and it is pushing for legislation that would provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
During the interview, Alzate also talked about how her parents immigrated to United States from Colombia and were able to send her to college for undergraduate and master’s degrees. “I was raised to believe that education is power, knowledge is power,” she said.
Hear more by downloading the latest episode of Rhode Island Report, available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, and other podcasting platforms, or listen in the player below: