The Business and Industry Association, NH's statewide chamber of commerce, is among the latest organizations to voice opposition to the "Divisive Conecpets" amendment to the state budget that would essentially prohibit public employees or public-school students to undergo diversity, equity and inclusion training that addresses systemic racism and sexism.
"The issues of gender and race are important to most employers around the state, and many of our members have already implemented diversity training that reflects their corporate culture," says BIA President Jim Roche. "This controversial language sends the wrong message to employers who recognize the importance of open, honest and yes, sometimes difficult and uncomfortable conversations with their employees about the issue of race and gender discrimination. To prohibit some employers from engaging in these discussions, as the language from HB 544 does, will leave them vulnerable to race and/or gender discrimination."
The BIA is not alone in its opposition. The nonprofit NH Businesses for Social Responsibility (NHBSR) previously sent an open letter to the legislature opposing HB 544 that has been signed by 200 businesses, industry associations and nonprofits.
Despite such opposition, the amendment was included in the state budget, which the NH House approved on April 7 and will now go before the Senate. An attempt to remove the provision from the budget was defeated.
Originally a bill known as HB 544, the amendment limits lessons about unconscious bias and systemic racism and sexism and was approved by a house committee and then included in the House Budget as Amendment 2021-0925h. It would make the NH Department of Administrative Services for Compliance the arbiter of whether a training program adheres to the tenets of SB 544 and allows contracts to be cancelled if found in violation.
The bill is already opposed by the NH Medical Society, NH Psychological Association, ACLU-NH, NEA-NH, the NH state teachers’ association, and the NH Charitable Foundation, among others. Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated he will veto the legislation if it reaches his desk.
Among those signing NHBSR’s open letter to the Legislature and the governor are many of NH's larger employers, including Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, Hypertherm, Northeast Delta Dental and Stonyfield Farm.
“As leaders in social responsibility, these organizations work to support our communities and build strong workplace cultures where all people can reach their fullest potential. These signatories understand the value of diversity, equity and inclusion,” NHBSR stated in a press release.
The letter stated there are four key areas that would be negatively affected by HB 544: innovative thinking and problem solving critical to business growth; employee retention; competitive advantage; and, most importantly, the value of each employee and their diverse backgrounds.
The bill’s sponsor Rep. Keith Ammon, R-New Boston, testified before the House Finance committee that the bill is aimed at preventing anyone from feeling diminished because of their race and was written by an anonymous professor at a NH university who fears retribution for their views. He also testified while there are vestiges of racism in the U.S., it is not systemic.
Michelle Veasey , executive director of NHBSR, said NHBSR held a Workplace Racial Equity Learning Challenge recently that had about 700 people registered and included weekly discussions around difficult topics of race and equity. She says if a law like HB 544 was enacted, more than half of the registrants could not have participated.
“We believe that New Hampshire businesses, nonprofits, government agencies and educational institutions must be free to explore the history and impact of racism and sexism as they feel appropriate. We cannot back away from challenges. Our country and our state are strongest when we work together to find opportunities and innovate to create new pathways that build on a shared understanding. For this reason, we strongly oppose HB 544 and the House Budget Amendment 2021-0925h,” Veasey said.
She added that membership in NHBSR is not required for any businesses interested in signing onto the letter of opposition. “Our hope is that this statement speaks directly and strongly to New Hampshire’s desire to be more diverse, to lift up equity as our vision and to fully embrace all of our residents,” she said.