A procurement system that gives a small leg up to a company owned by a minority, or a woman, or that is just a fledgling start-up, might well help a handful of those kinds of businesses get off the ground.
But the reason it was right for the Salt Lake County Council to expand the sorts of businesses that would qualify for the bonus system is not the perk it gives to a handful of businesses. It is right because it has the potential to move the needle for the whole of the community.
The county already had a system that puts businesses that hire veterans or that provide health insurance for their employees in a slightly favorable position. If the business is seeking to sell paper clips, engineering services or police cars to the county, and such factors as the price, the quality and other things are basically equal, the system can help the expanded list of favored businesses not only catch a break but build a track record and cash flow to help it grow, hire and prosper.
That’s not just good for the particular bid-winner. It’s good for the whole of the local economy. And for taxpayers.
Utah ranks shamefully low on such factors as the number of businesses owned by women and for women in top positions in both business and government. And our pay gap is among the biggest in the country. Reversing those numbers doesn’t just help a few women. It helps create a more vibrant economy, an environment where there are more healthy businesses that compete for not just the county’s business, but for yours.
And, according to all free-marketeers everywhere, more healthy companies hustling to win more business helps to keep prices down, quality and innovation up, not just when selling things to the county but when offering goods and services to all of us.
The council’s vote on the plan was not unanimous. Among those on the losing side of the 5-3 vote was Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton, a woman with a background in independent businesses. She worried that the new points system was somehow unfair to the white businessmen who — in fact though not in law — have always had the upper hand in any kind of business negotiation. Not so much out of conscious bias as it is a result of existing networks of friendships, associations and habits.
"I don’t believe gender and race should ever be the deciding factor as we choose who to do business with,” Newton said. And she’d be right, if gender and race hadn’t been a deciding factor in the way nearly everyone has done business since business was trading a cow for a sackful of potatoes.
The new policy doesn’t kick aside qualified male-owned businesses for unqualified women-owned concerns. It just puts a couple of extra clams on the scale in a way that helps to even things out.