On July 15, 2010, Governor Paterson signed into law four MWBE (Minority Women Business Enterprise) Bills known as the New York State Business Diversity Act. This package is expected to have a major impact on the opportunities afforded to businesses that have been certified as minority and women-owned within the state.
Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson was a major player in the creation and passing of these bills. Elected to the Senate in 2000, the senator represents the 36th Senatorial District covering parts of the Bronx and Westchester Counties in New York City. Senator Hassell-Thompson took time out of her busy schedule to share her insight with us on the passage of the Business Diversity Act. She shared, specifically, what the impact will be, where there could be bumps in the road, and what it took to make it happen.
TNJ: In June of 2008 Governor Paterson issued Executive Order #10 establishing the M/WBE Task Force, which yielded impressive results. What kind of results do you foresee for the 2010 New York State Business Diversity Act?
SRHT: One of the things I know that the governor had talked about was that he had seen a lot of positive results, just because of the daycare services and staff. But one of the reasons that this became important to put into law is because we can’t always count on every succeeding governor to have the same interest and intensity of ensuring that there are these kinds of positive results within a minority group to receiving contract opportunities.
I perceive that if we are successful in putting some good regs in place in terms of how the process will go and putting enough staffing in place and monitoring mechanisms within the agencies to ensure that there is follow-through, that when good faith efforts are made and you can’t find contractors for a particular area, that there really has been good outreach and that they’ve exhausted every possible reasonable method.
I think having good policy that starts at the top, technical assistance training for the development of new business opportunity and growth for all of the businesses in the state of New York are the things I hope this Business Diversity Act will accomplish.
TNJ: Where do you believe the blockages would be, if any, in the implementation of these bills?
SRHT: If anything, it’s really in how we promulgate regulations. Long before I became a legislator it was clear to me that when you talk with a legislator about what you wanted to see happen and they were on board, somehow that didn’t get translated into how they regulate.
And so, the blockages would be if there is a failure to put sufficient money to do the kinds of things that I’ve outlined, i.e. sufficient monitoring, appropriate money for technical assistance, and penalties for those majority firms that do work with the state and then fail to comply, because that’s where the regs come in. The legislation is one thing; the regulation and the funding of the proper monitoring mechanism is another.
TNJ: Also, were there any difficulties in drafting the bills or garnering support?
SRHT: Oh tremendous, tremendous difficulty. First of all, there were periods of waiting. We had to do the disparity study, and I know you’re familiar with it, but in a nutshell it was a study that really had to be done to ensure that the things that we thought were problematic were in fact a problem. So on the face of it we knew certain things, but we had to be able to prove it. The disparity study proved that what we knew to be a problem was in fact a problem, but it was greater than we even thought.
In the completion of it, because of constitutional laws, we also had to be sure that the language that we used in the bill would stand up to constitutional challenge. Then we had to satisfy all of the different individuals who were involved in this—the Assembly and the Senate—and there were things that some wanted, things that were resisted, and some things that would cost a great deal more money than the state could be able to afford. There were all kinds of negotiations that had to happen. The language, I mean down to the verbiage, became a major, major discussion and meetings well into the night until we had hammered out language that people could live with.
So it was very difficult and then getting our colleagues to buy in was another thing. Getting the right number of people to sign on to the bill initially so that you knew that there really was support for it, working with both houses, working with the budget and so yes, I mean it’s very typical of what a major bill of such great proportions and import would take. That’s the way we do all bills that have such a sweeping impact on such a large number of people.
TNJ: When I look at your background that is so rich with decades of experience and advocacy for minority business, I can’t help but feel that this is not only a public triumph, but a personal one as well. Am I correct in that assumption?
SRHT: Well I feel a sense of personal accomplishment, certainly there is no question about that. How could you not?
I started out with Mario Cuomo in 1985 serving on the Minority and Women Business Advisory Board to the state. The work that we did as a group, in developing language for what was then Article 15-A, is what stayed in place until the Diversity Act. For me, it’s been a long wait from 1985 to 2010 to see an enactment for something that should have been in place a long time ago.
So yes, there is a sense of personal accomplishment but it’s like anything else. You know what the yardage is on the football field and every year or every bill or every opportunity is another 10 yards toward the goal. And to be the person who carried the football through the goal post obviously has to have some feelings of personal accomplishment attached to it.
Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson’s closing thoughts on the Business Diversity Act was a fervent wish coupled with a disappointing observation:
SRHT: I am really hopeful that people understand how important this bill is to the long-term development of business opportunities for women and minorities. I was very saddened that as important as this bill is, most of the major newspapers never gave any ink to it at all.