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Push to Certify LGBT-Owned Businesses Gets Messy

Misconceptions emerge over potential future set-aside funds; Council speaker tepid on idea

Out gay Bronx City Councilmember Ritchie Torres wants his bill authorizing the city to certify LGBTQ small business owners to get a hearing by early next year.
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Out gay Bronx City Councilmember Ritchie Torres remains confident that his bill authorizing the city to certify LGBTQ small business owners will get a hearing by next year, despite concerns raised about possible misinformation regarding the measure and separate questions raised by out gay Speaker Corey Johnson about what authority the city has, under state law, to do anything to help such businesses beyond simply certifying them.

It has been more than eight months since the sunny morning in late February when Torres introduced the bill, which would require the Department of Small Business Services to certify LGBTQ-owned businesses, publish a directory of those businesses, and offer business owners education and other resources. The idea for such a bill, Torres said, originated during Pride season in June of 2018 when National Chamber of Commerce senior vice president Jonathan Lovitz pressed him on the need for a certification program for LGBTQ-owned small businesses.

The city has long maintained a program for women-owned and minority-owned business enterprises (MWBE), which entails enhanced access to city contracts and is backed up by disparity studies proving such initiatives are necessary to even the playing field. Torres’ bill does not call for any such advantages in winning city contracts, though the data gathered through the registry could help build a case for a disparity study to be carried out in the future. Out gay Councilmember Daniel Dromm of Queens has proposed a complementary bill that would require that kind of disparity research.

It’s not as if Torres’ bill has no support among elected officials in the city. Out gay Councilmembers Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn and Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens as well as Dromm have signed on as co-sponsors, as have Councilmembers Diana Ayala of the Bronx and Manhattan, Mark Levine of Manhattan, and Justin Brannan of Brooklyn. City Comptroller Scott Stringer is also backing the bill, saying in a written statement that “it is imperative that New York City join” other US cities that have moved ahead with LGBTQ-owned small business programs.

Yet, the measure has yet to receive a hearing, fueling speculation that it could be in trouble. Lovitz said in an email to Gay City News that there “may be some misinformation or misinterpretation of the bill that is preventing the speaker’s office from moving the bill to a hearing and ultimately passage.” He added that “councilmem­bers and the speaker may be concerned it runs afoul of law governing MWBE set-asides.”

Bronx Councilmember Mark Gjonaj, who chairs the Committee on Small Business overseeing the bill, did not respond to Gay City News’ inquiries about the legislation. Johnson told Gay City News that LGBTQ business owners should “celebrate and advertise their LGBTQ-ownership status” if they wish, but he also cast doubt on any scenario in which they would win enhanced access to city contracts along the lines of the MWBE program. He asserted that state law “currently does not authorize the city to give any preferential contracting services to these businesses, so it is unclear what benefit certification would have.”

Several follow-ups with Johnson’s office, however, failed to yield an unambiguous explanation of how state law would stand in the way of such preferential contracting access for LGBTQ-owned businesses.

In the meantime, Torres is keeping his focus on the current bill before looking too far in advance, but said he expects cooperation from the speaker’s office. In an effort to clarify any misconceptions that may exist about the bill, he told Gay City News on November 1 that it is “fundamenta­lly different” from the programs for traditional minority and women-owned business enterprises (MWBE), saying “one has no bearing on the other.”

“We’re in a business where people are conditioned to have a fear about everything,” he said. “Ultimately this is a fear that is unfounded.”

He added, “There is not a single example of LGBT certification eroding a traditional MWBE program. Not a single one.”

Torres is hopeful that the bill will get a hearing “early next year,” saying that the city’s lawmaking body does not shy away from holding hearings on controversial pieces of legislation.

He further explained that such a bill could be beneficial to those who already participate in the existing minority and women-owned business program.

“The businesses overlap considerably in a Venn diagram,” he said. “There are LGBTQ women-owned businesses, LGBTQ Latino-owned businesses, LGBTQ African-American-owned businesses. Those businesses would benefit from traditional MWBE set-asides and LGBT certificat­ions.”

While LGBTQ people of color and lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women already have access to existing MWBE programs, white gay men, non-binary folks, and transgender men would be able to benefit from certification of their businesses and perhaps someday have a better shot at city contracts.

For now, though, Torres hopes to at least certify the businesses — a no brainer in his mind.

“If properly understood, this is largely uncontrove­rsial,” he said.

Posted 5:37 pm, November 5, 2019
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