A final version of a sweeping racial equity bill was approved in committee on Thursday, even as the final costs of the legislation remain in question. It now heads to the full Montgomery County Council for consideration.
The bill, introduced by Council President Nancy Navarro in September, seeks to eliminate racial inequality in Montgomery County by directing the government to consider it on an executive, legislative and administrative level.
Among many actions, the legislation would require racial equity and social justice impact statements for all new bills, establish a separate Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice, and require county departments to draft action plans for addressing inequality.
Forming the Office of Racial Equity and Social Justice was estimated to cost roughly $1.9 million over the next six years, according to an analysis by the county’s Office of Management and Budget.
But the full economic impact of the bill has not yet been assessed. Amendments to the final version — scheduled for a council vote on Tuesday — could change the final costs.
The council’s Government Operations and Fiscal Policy (GO) committee added several significant amendments to the bill, largely following suggestions and critiques from 43 speakers at two public hearings in late October.
Navarro, chair of the GO committee, introduced three amendments that could affect the future cost of the bill.
One directs the County Council to allocate enough money for the legislation to be effectively implemented. The move is relatively rare and virtually unenforceable, senior legislative attorney Robert Drummer explained on Thursday, as the council cannot mandate funding in future budgets.
Nevertheless, similar language is occasionally added when council members want to indicate their commitment to a bill. Most recently, the same requirement was added to a law that expanded the oversight capabilities of the county’s inspector general.
Navarro also changed the composition of a Racial Equity and Social Justice Advisory Committee to address the concerns of numerous speakers at the public hearings. The amendment would bring the total number of committee members to 15, including eight members of the general public.
More than a dozen residents and community groups requested the change, including the Montgomery County chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice, a social advocacy group.
SURJ, along with several other residents, also suggested that members of the committee should be compensated for volunteering.
“Currently the bill specifies that members of the racial equity and social justice committee must receive no compensation,” SURJ wrote in a letter of support for the bill. “This is prohibitive for many people who are poor or working class.”
In response, Navarro added an annual stipend of $2,000 for each of the eight public members on the committee and “reimbursement for expenses incurred in serving,” according to the language of the amendment.
“We’re a very socioeconomically diverse county, so if we truly want to receive input from a cross-section of residents, we need to make sure we facilitate that participation,” she said in a phone interview on Friday.
The stipend could provide support for residents who pay for public transportation to committee meetings, Navarro added, or parents who need to hire child care during committee engagements.
Whether a similar stipend would be applied to future advisory committees would be considered on a “case-by-case basis,” she said. Council members are currently considering a bill to establish a police advisory commission with nine public members.
The stipend cannot technically be enforced in future budget appropriations, which must be approved by at least five council members every year. But adding it to the bill would at least require legislators to consider and respond to the requirement, Navarro said.
She also added an amendment to require racial justice and social equity training for all county employees, not just managers and supervisors. Widespread training is likely to require additional funding, but the final amount has not yet been determined.
Equity impact statements
The original version of the bill tasked the executive office with providing racial equity and social justice impact statements for new legislation and budget programs. The legislation would require the impact statements for any non-expedited bill to move forward.
County Executive Marc Elrich requested that the bill be amended to require the Office of Legislative Oversight — overseen by the County Council — to prepare the statements, instead. Drummer pointed out that the executive office could derail future legislation under the original version of the bill by failing to submit equity impact statements.
Committee members approved the change, but agreed that the Office of Legislative Oversight would need time to hire a new staff member to prepare the statements. If the bill is passed, the office will have until Aug. 1 to begin preparing impact statements for new legislation.
The remainder of the bill would go into effect 90 days after passage.
Definition of social justice
Several residents took issue with the definition of social justice in the bill, which — as many pointed out — actually seemed to define social injustice.
The original language defined social justice as “a social construct that artificially divides people into distinct groups based on age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identification, religion, or disability.”
Committee members amended the definition to reflect changes suggested by Elrich and honed during the meeting.
“Social justice,” the bill now reads, “means that everyone deserves to benefit from the same economic, political and social rights and opportunities, regardless of race, age, socioeconomic status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, disability or other characteristics.”
The change was important, Drummer pointed out, given that the legislation directs the county to consider and prioritize social justice in almost every aspect of government.