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Albany should pass a bill to expand opportunities to win government construction contracts

When we think of “civil rights,” we usually think of integrating equality into the foundations of our society — voting, school integration, equal access for people with disabilities, and more. We don’t usually think about government construction contracts, but we ought to.

As president of the National Urban League and a former mayor, I understand that civil rights are more than just what is codified in the Civil Rights Act or the Voting Rights Act but are, more broadly, about government institutionalizing viable paths towards equality in all that government does. It is not enough to demand that our government prioritizes quality, fiscal prudence, and efficiency in delivering public construction projects; we must also call on our elected leaders to prioritize inclusivity in the process. That is why this session in Albany, lawmakers must pass reforms that finally give Minority- and Women-Owned Business Enterprises (M/WBEs) a fair shot in participating in government construction contracts.

When government undertakes public works, it delivers a project that serves a critical public good, but we must also consider who benefits from the capital investments made when building those projects. It is not only about who receives the new community center, EMS station, or sewer connection, it is also about which businesses were provided an opportunity to deliver them. When M/WBEs have fair chances at government contracts to build public infrastructure, they build intergenerational wealth in their families and communities and together, we build a more inclusive economy. This is not about merely creating a pathway to prosperity — it is about treating this as a civil right.

Albany lawmakers have the opportunity to pass a set of reforms that would significantly level the playing field for M/WBEs that work in design and construction in New York City. The most recent disparity studies conducted by the City of New York demonstrate that discrimination continues to affect M/WBEs seeking to do business in the market where the city conducts its procurements. The chance to tackle this inequity presents itself now, in this year’s session.

Mayor Adams convened the Capital Process Reform Task Force, a group of experts from the M/WBE community, labor, and industry, that worked with the city comptroller and city agencies to do a top-down analysis of the capital process and recommend improvements. The Task Force recommended nine reforms currently before the Legislature. The Task Force recommended giving the city access to alternative delivery options including one-step design-build, construction manager-build, and construction manager-at-risk. When the city had access to construction manager-build during the COVID pandemic, the Department of Design and Construction build testing sites in an average of seven days with 55% M/WBE utilization and built three permanent health care facilities in an average of 192 days with 46% M/WBE utilization.

The Task Force identified insurance as a huge issue and recommended that the city be able to use Owner-Controlled and Contractor-Controlled Insurance Programs, which create safe worksites and are common in both public and private construction projects. The Task Force also recommended that the state create an additional insurance option for M/WBEs via the New York State Insurance Fund. Together, these insurance proposals would mitigate a significant barrier to entry for M/WBEs. The Task Force recommended the city be able to create a citywide mentorship program based on successful models at the School Construction Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and be able to use a streamlined procurement process when hiring M/WBEs for contracts less than $1.5 million, just as the MTA can do.

The Task Force recommended that the Department of Design and Construction become an authority, just as many other construction entities in the state are, which would make procurement more efficient, expand opportunities for M/WBEs, and decrease administrative burdens. Finally, the Task Force recommended common-sense procurement modernization that would streamline basic processes like electronic bidding and online public comments on contracts. The full package of proposals would relieve the city of outdated regulatory burdens and enable a major investment in communities of color at nearly no cost to the state.

It is time that we viewed the massive resources that our government expends on capital projects as a vehicle to grow opportunities for M/WBEs. As a value proposition, it makes total sense — harnessing the power of government contracting to uplift disadvantaged communities and businesses. I hope that lawmakers see this reform package as a win-win, as a way to improve public buildings and invest in communities of color. The resulting increased ability of M/WBEs to compete for government contracts and improved public infrastructure is a matter of civil rights.

Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans.




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