As a member of the Joint Legislative COVID-19 Emergency Spending Task Force, I was pleased to read about Rhode Island state officials’ efforts to protect taxpayers from “virus profiteers” in the May 25 edition of the Providence Journal. Governor Raimondo’s administration has responded quickly and effectively to this unprecedented challenge, and has been instrumental in avoiding millions of dollars in additional expenses fighting this pandemic. However, it is disappointing to see that qualified minority vendors have been bypassed altogether as the state awards millions of dollars in related contracts. This is especially poignant considering that Rhode Island’s minority community has been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
Time is of the essence in any emergency response, and authorities had to react quickly to unpredictable and potentially devastating scenarios. I’m proud of the work that has been done and appreciate the administration’s efforts, as well as the top quality work and services provided by many Rhode Island contractors. Our building trades performed exceptional work. However, even under the most extreme circumstances, it is questionable at best and unacceptable at worst that duly-registered minority contractors from Rhode Island, commonly referred to as Minority Business Enterprises (MBEs), were passed over. As Rhode Island prepared for a potential surge in hospitalizations related to COVID-19, $34 million was spent on the construction and equipping of field hospitals. Out of those $34 million in contracts, not a single dollar has gone to a minority-owned Rhode Island company. With hundreds of MBEs on the state’s master list of vendors, it is inconceivable that not even one was worthy of consideration. By law, ten percent of all state construction and service contracts must be awarded to minority-owned companies that have completed a rigorous state certification process.
This pandemic has brought to the forefront long-standing systemic inequities in our society. Our minority communities reflect significantly lower health, education and economic indicators when compared to the general population. It should come as no surprise, then, that minorities in our state have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. What is surprising and disappointing, however, is that qualified and certified businesses led by minorities have also been left behind during one of the most challenging periods in our recent history.
Rhode Island’s response to COVID-19 has been remarkable. We have led the nation in testing and procuring PPE during these difficult times. The state’s success in protecting taxpayers from so-called virus profiteers is appreciated and must be extended to protect our own minority vendors in Rhode Island. I have also been impressed by the response of my colleagues on the Senate Finance Committee and in the Senate, who are working to address the fiscal crisis responsibly and have been tireless throughout this crisis in their efforts to assist constituents in need. Let’s take that same thoughtful approach to ensuring that we aren’t leaving anyone behind in the procurement of goods and services, and as we take further steps to reopen the economy. While we’re at it, let’s not settle for simply getting back to the way things were. Given that this horrible pandemic has devastated our minority communities, let’s focus on ensuring equity for all Rhode Islanders, regardless of their zip codes.
Sandra Cano is a Rhode Island State Senator representing District 8 in Pawtucket.