A bill aimed at increasing local and minority access to state-funded construction projects is one step closer to passage after receiving a thumbs-up last week from the Joint Committee on State Administration and Oversight.
“An Act to Create Equitable Jobs Access” makes several changes to the state’s labor laws: the state would adopt a formal goal of gender and racial equity and local hiring on its contracts; state agencies would be required to evaluate past performance in diverse and local hiring when reviewing bid proposals; and workforce numbers would be tracked throughout a project and reported on a public website, exposing whether contractors make good on their diversity and local hiring promises.
“This bill uses the power of sunlight to make sure our communities are benefitting from the projects our taxpayer dollars are paying for,” said the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz (D-Boston), in a statement. “One of the greatest frustrations I hear from constituents is seeing parking lots of multi-million dollar, state-funded construction projects in Roxbury or Dorchester filled with cars with New Hampshire license plates.”
Last October, some 20 people, including elected officials, clergy, community advocates and business and trade representatives, testified before the Administration and Oversight Committee in support of the bill.
Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, described to the committee how large companies have advantages in gaining contracts, and how they can shut smaller contractors out by deliberately underbidding.
“Minority contractors are kept inside a small economic box,” Hamilton concluded. “They are not able to advance and expand.”
In Boston, a city policy requires that 50 percent of jobs on city-funded projects go to local residents, 25 percent to minorities, and 10 percent to women. The rule has helped to increase diversity on recent projects such as the Kroc Center and the Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury. The state bill, while it specifies no quotas, aims to increase this sort of inclusion in state-funded projects.
The new bill would affect local projects that draw on state funding, such as improvements to state-funded Boston Housing Authority properties, the upcoming design changes to Melnea Cass Boulevard, and the recent rehabilitation of the Melnea Cass Recreation Complex.
Boston District 7 City Councilor Tito Jackson has been keeping an eye on jobs access for minorities and women on city-funded projects, and sees this bill as an important extension at the state level.
“I think as we look forward to major development opportunities, including casino gambling, the issue of equity needs to be at the forefront,” Jackson said in a telephone interview. “[This bill] gives some teeth to making sure that women, people of color and local residents are included. So I’m very excited.”
The favorable vote means the bill now heads to the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, which will evaluate the costs to implement it.
Chang-Diaz expressed excitement that the bill, newly introduced last year, has reached this point.
“This is a big deal for a bill in its first time through,” she said, also in a telephone interview. “There are about 6,000 bills filed this session, and for many bills the end of the line is a study, rather than a favorable vote. I think it’s a testament to the depth and passion of the testimony the committee heard, and the broad array of stakeholders.”
In her own testimony last fall, she stressed that no one is looking for a handout, just a foot in the door. “These contractors and workers just want a fair shot at competing for the work,” she said.
“It takes some intentionality to get our agencies and contractors to look up from the old resumés of the people they’ve worked with for decades,” she said, “and to look at new contenders—not new to the community, but new to these agencies. That’s what this bill is really about, giving some new people a shot.”