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Legislators advance bill to protect state certification of LGBTQ-owned businesses

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Legislators advance bill to protect state certification of LGBTQ-owned businesses

Feb 22, 2024 | 7:29 pm ET
By Dana DiFilippo
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Legislators advance bill to protect state certification of LGBTQ-owned businesses
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An Assembly panel advanced a bill on Feb. 22, 2024, that would ensure state certification of LGBTQ-owned businesses is protected by law. (Photo by Edwin J. Torres | Governor’s Office)

An Assembly panel advanced a bill Thursday that would codify a state certification process for LBGTQ business owners, which opens up opportunities for funding and contracts reserved for diverse demographics.

Such certification already exists under an executive order Gov. Phil Murphy issued in May 2022, but supporters say the bill the Assembly’s commerce committee approved Thursday would give it the power of state law and ensure the certification remains in place after Murphy leaves office.

Gus Penaranda of the New Jersey Pride Chamber of Commerce told lawmakers that membership in his business group quadrupled after Murphy issued his executive order.

“People have been waiting not just to be recognized by the state in which they pay taxes and hire employees and provide services and resources. But now they want to make sure that this is not going to go away anytime soon. As we all know, executive orders can be taken away,” Penaranda said.

New Jersey’s treasury department also offers such certification for businesses owned by women, people of color, and veterans.

Under bipartisan legislation sponsored by Assemblymen Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), Sterley Stanley (D-Middlesex), and Don Guardian (R-Atlantic), a business would have to be wholly or mostly owned by an LGBTQ person to qualify.

While the handful of people who testified Thursday supported the bill, it still prompted 40 minutes of debate, largely after several Republicans pushed back on the measure.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) questioned language in the bill that would permit people to challenge a business owner’s LGBTQ certification.

“How would one prove this in a court of appeal where they’re being challenged? You can prove that you’re a woman with a birth certificate. You can prove you’re a veteran with the discharge papers. You can prove you’re a small business with financial statements,” Bergen said. “I would never want somebody who’s LGBTQIA to have to withstand this type of scrutiny, just based on somebody thinking you’re not gay … that’s wrong.”

But Kathleen Waters, owner of Hillsborough-based janitorial company Facilities, Partners & Solutions, told Bergen she could prove she was gay by her military discharge papers.

Besides, she said, the opportunity to challenge is important to stop bad actors who might fraudulently seek certification for its perks. Such certification can give business owners access to capacity-building resources, business coaching, accelerator programs, and networking.

“I’ve seen men put companies in their wives’ names. And I don’t like that,” she said. “But I also don’t want to be invisible. I want to be able to have a seat at the table. I want to be able to have an opportunity, not just in the private sector but in the government sector. And having this affords me the opportunity to be visible and assist the state of New Jersey to recognize our community.”

She pointed to a recent state-commissioned disparity study on women-, minority-, and disabled veteran-owned businesses seeking state contracts.

“Our community wasn’t even considered in the numbers,” she said.

Chris Emigholz of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association told lawmakers his group supports the bill, saying it would help the state gather better data on LGBTQ-owned businesses that could uncover problems ripe for reform.

The committee advanced the bill by a 9-2 vote, with Bergen and Assemblywoman Dawn Fantasia (R-Sussex) voting no and Assemblyman Alex Sauickie (R-Ocean) abstaining. The Senate version of the bill unanimously passed in that body’s commerce committee earlier this month.