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Ritchie: Expand minority and women business perks to veterans

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State Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie wants to extend the perks that businesses owned by women and minorities receive to those owned by veterans.

Few businesses in rural areas are owned by women or minorities, Mrs. Ritchie and outside advocates say. To reach Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s goal of 20 percent of state contracts going to minority- and women-owned businesses — it’s about half that now — the state should include veterans in that definition, Mrs. Ritchie argues.

But while putting veterans to work is a laudable goal, the state should tread carefully and thoughtfully before shaking up its efforts to put historically disenfranchised groups to work, advocates say.

“We’re having a tough time trying to find ways to award contracts,” said Mrs. Ritchie, a Heuvelton Republican who sits on the governor’s task force tapped to study the matter. “There are very few minority- or women-owned enterprises here.”

Nearly one in three veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan can’t find work, Mrs. Ritchie said, citing federal Bureau of Labor Statistics figures.

“We’re already having a problem meeting a threshold that the governor has put in place,” she said. “I think it’s a great way to still include those that he’s targeted and open it up to veterans.”

A fellow member of the task force said the gap between the governor’s goal for state contracts and the ability to give them to minority and women businesses is exactly the point: The vacuum creates pressure that will help minority- and women-owned businesses start up and thrive. And including veteran businesses in that definition would release the useful pressure that such demands are placing on the state and businesses.

“Right now, there is a good sense of urgency that exists” about women and minority business ownership, said Professor Walter D. Broadnax, who teaches at Syracuse University and serves on the task force with Mrs. Ritchie. “Once you start to move those numbers, I think, it doesn’t make it impossible, but it certainly complicates the conversation.”

Mr. Broadnax said giving veterans job opportunities is a fair and worthy goal, but he couldn’t say yea or nay whether he thought Mrs. Ritchie’s idea was the proper venue.

“I understand the need. I think it goes without question that there are lots of veterans that are suffering terribly. The unemployment’s a problem, and health care, God knows it’s a lot,” he said. “On the other hand, what are you going to have available to begin to penetrate a problem we haven’t been able to penetrate in the past?”

Jacqueline S.L. Williams, who also serves on the task force, said the lack of businesses that qualify as women- and minority-owned indeed exists in rural areas, and it contributes to the difficulties in reaching the 20 percent goal. But that’s not the most important factor, she said.

“The agencies and authorities have to do a better job about making sure that there’s access and parity when it comes to the distribution of these contracts,” said Ms. Williams, executive director of the Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprise Coalition. “Another thing is just communicating that these contracts are available.”

She said state government should approach the problem from “not just an anecdotal point of view or an emotional point of view. Let’s make sure we’re making good policy.”

Mrs. Ritchie said she sees opportunity in agriculture. Many farms, she said, are owned by women.

“These are the opportunities we can focus on,” she said. “I think including veterans is a great way to open it up to a segment of the population that has served the country.”

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