The effects of diversity, equity, and inclusion on public finance is growing as issuer leaders explore best practices for defining, measuring, and implementing the policies.
The Government Finance Officers Association has made DEI an area of focus, an effort that’s expected to continue as the group changes leadership. Reckoning with the issue has been a priority for outgoing president Terri Velasquez within the organization and in Aurora, Colorado where she serves as Finance Director.
“Our council members voted to eliminate a DEI position, without even knowing what it was,” she said. “Prior to this change in the council, we had a very split council with right and left views that came around to some DEI efforts.”
The issue also hits home for Jennifer Brown, director, fiscal projects, City of Sugar Land, Texas. “We are a majority minority community,” she said. “The local school district was building a high school on some former Texas Department of Corrections land. They found some African American skeletons from the convict leasing program. How do we honor their memories and respect the families of those of those individuals? We’re not trying to erase what happened. We’ve got to learn from it and grow from it.”
GFOA has developed a number of online tools, policies, surveys and programs to help members navigate the issue. As the fight over ESG and DEI become more political, the implications are starting to show up in unexpected places. During a DEI session at the GFOA conference on Sunday, questions were raised about next year’s meeting being staged in Orlando, Florida. The city is ground zero for the ongoing fight between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Disney Corporation. The possibility of moving the meeting to another state is not on the table.
“Because we’re so large there’s, there’s only so many cities that can handle us,” said Chris Morrill, executive director, CEO, GFOA. “We usually book five years in advance. “We had some members who said they would not come to Portland, because Oregon is liberal in many areas. I think you’re going get it in both extremes.”
The added emphasis on DEI is also influencing federal policy relative to infrastructure funding. In March, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials staged a pledge signing ceremony for thirteen state departments of transportation who supported the Equity in Infrastructure Project, which is designed to create more opportunities for historically underutilized businesses.
The U.S. Dept. of Transportation spelled out the importance of DEI in a presentation at the National League of Cities’ Congressional City Conference, also in March. The Reconnecting Communities program and the White House’s Justice40 Initiative both lean heavy into DEI.
Interpreting federal policy directives while also dealing with political squabbles on the local level adds extra layers of static to local government saddled with moving projects forward.
“I feel that it’s more important for us to meet than get involved with politics and political views,” said Velasquez. “I think it’s really critical and important is that we gather and support our mission.”