Legislation to improve small diverse and veteran-owned businesses’ opportunities to land state and local government contracts got a push from Gov. Tom Wolf on Monday.

The impetus for the bill grows out of a 2018 statewide disparity study that found women, minority and veteran-owned businesses were underrepresented in the commonwealth’s contracting system.

“The free market does not work optimally when some people are shut out of that market. A system that only allows the known and the familiar faces to succeed is a system that misses out on the best chance to grow, to thrive and to innovate,” Wolf said.

“If we want a level, economic playing field, we need to make sure everyone has a fair shot.”

The legislation, which has been introduced in the House and Senate, lowers the barriers for small businesses to compete for government contracts. It offers more flexibility in how a small business is defined to an industry-specific size requirement rather than the current classification of a 100-employee limit for all businesses. It also rebrands the term “disadvantaged business” to “small diverse business.”

Giving this segment of the business sector a boost in landing government contracts has been decades in the making, said Rep. Jake Wheatley, D-Allegheny County.

“What I’m trying to tell you is never have we had our fair share of opportunities in this commonwealth: women, people of color, people who are disabled or disadvantaged in some form or fashion and certainly not our veterans ever gotten their fair share,” Wheatley said. “We have an opportunity in this commonwealth to open up our businesses and say welcome to anyone and everyone who wants to do business.”

Wheatley and Rep. Carrie Lewis DelRosso, R-Allegheny County, are the sponsors of House Bill 1887 that would level the playing field for these small businesses while an identical bill, Senate Bill 900 has been offered by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington County, and Sen. Vince Hughes, D-Philadelphia.

Bartolotta acknowledged this legislation is needed to help pull Pennsylvania out of the pandemic-related economic ditch it is in. Having operated a drive-through quick lube business in the Mon Valley prior to being elected to the Senate, she said she knows the struggles of trying to cover payroll during slow times of the year.

“This is why I know how important this legislation is and helping small diverse and veteran businesses to not only compete for state work but also to grow and contribute to our economy,” she said.

Rep. Donna Bullock, D-Philadelphia, said if you look historically at how wealth was created in the commonwealth, “a large swath of middle class folks, white folks were able to get there through government contracting, government jobs. This is an opportunity that we can rectify some of those errors in the past and create wealth in those underserved communities.”

General Services Secretary Curt Topper said the commonwealth has spent more than $2.7 billion on contracts with small diverse and veteran-owned businesses since 2015, when Wolf took office.

The administration has boosted the percentage of those businesses getting commonwealth contracts from 7.6% in 2017 to 17.9%, or more than 5,000, in 2019. He credited Wolf’s leadership through a 2015 executive order to look at the disparities and make recommendations for that growth.

“Now with this legislation, we can codify those policies to make sure that the results continue,” Topper said.

Jan Murphy may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

Read more on PennLive:

At Pennsylvania’s first March for Life, thousands rally to oppose abortion: ‘We know that’s life’

Medical marijuana patients in Pa. risk arrest for DUI when they get behind the wheel