Black Caucus pushes diversity in contracting

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press

Mississippi lawmakers thought they were coming to Jackson for a quick special session on the Friday before Labor Day. Some predicted it would take only a couple of hours to pass a $175 million bond package and update some tax incentives to help private companies create 4,750 jobs.

Sure enough, the House and Senate approved the package, as requested by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour. But the session extended to eight hours after black lawmakers raised concerns about the minuscule share of public contracts that go to firms owned by minorities or women.

Jackson attorney Betty A. Mallett, who’s with the newly formed Mississippi Alliance for Diversity in Public Contracting, said the issue deserves serious discussion in 2012 because it affects the entire economy.

“The state needs to express a commitment to ensuring that women and minority businesses have full participation in the public contracting arena,” Mallett told The Associated Press.

During the Sept. 2 session, Legislative Black Caucus members pushed to include $2 million in bonds for a study of how many publicly-backed contracts are awarded to firms owned by minorities or women. A decade-old state law says the Mississippi Development Authority — the state’s job-seeking agency — should examine diversity in contracting, but lawmakers said a study has never been funded.

Mississippi Alliance for Diversity in Public Contracting cited MDA data showing that in 2010, less than 1 percent of money in public contracts was spent with minority-owned firms. Mississippi’s population is 37 percent black.

Sen. John Horhn, D-Jackson, said large companies dominate public contracts. He said officials sometimes talk about increasing participation by minority contractors, “but it’s basically that — lip service.”

Horhn tried to amend the bond bill to say the state should set a goal of having 25 percent of the funds from loans or grants spent on socially or economically disadvantaged firms. The Senate Finance Committee defeated the amendment on a voice vote.

Sen. Terry Brown, R-Columbus, opposed including a minority participation goal.

“It opens it up to the lawyers and interpretation,” Brown said.

Horhn tried to require MDA to study why so few contracts go to women- or minority-owned firms. That amendment also was defeated on a voice vote.

MDA Deputy Director Whit Hughes told lawmakers that setting specific goals for participation by minority contractors or subcontractors “would ultimately decrease our competitiveness.”

The agency is not ignoring the issue, though. Starting this week, MDA is hosting a series of workshops in Gulfport, Tupelo and Jackson to teach small contractors about business practices designed to improve their companies’ operations. The semi-annual workshops were planned before minority contracting became an issue during the special session, an agency spokeswoman said.

The special session bond package had $100 million for HCL CleanTech Inc., which wants to build four plants to turn wood chips into cellulosic sugars that can be used in pet foods, cosmetics, lubricants and other products; and $75.25 million for Calisolar, which plans to build a plant in Columbus to make silicon metal for use in automotive parts, consumer electronics and energy products, including solar panels.

Consultant Dennis Cuneo said HCL CleanTech has 50 employees, half of whom are in Israel. He said most of the company’s Israeli research scientists are women. He said employment at the HCL CleanTech sites in Mississippi will be representative of the areas they’re in.

“Diversity is a good thing,” said Cuneo, who was also involved in bringing Toyota to Mississippi.

John Correnti, chairman of the board for Calisolar, said the company will act as its own general contractor in Columbus. He said it will consider hiring minority subcontractors if they do quality work. “But we will not guarantee,” he said.