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Washington's Affirmative Action Ban Cost Minority-Owned Businesses Public Contract Dollars

Enrique Perez de la Rosa
Northwest News Network
A Washington Senate committee heard testimony Friday on a bill that would repeal the state's voter-approved ban on affirmative action.

In 1998, Washington residents voted to ban affirmative action in the state’s colleges and universities. But through that initiative, government agencies have also been barred from giving preferential treatment to minority-owned businesses in contracting.

Now, lawmakers are considering repealing the ban.

In the five years before the passage of I-200, state agencies spent an average of 10 percent of their public contracting dollars on small businesses owned by minorities. That’s according to the Washington's Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises.

In the 20 years after I-200 passed, that rate has fallen to an average of 3 percent. That translates to $3.5 billion dollars lost in earnings.

Port of Seattle Commissioner Stephanie Bowman testified before a state Senate committee in favor of repealing the ban. She said the ban on affirmative action has limited the Port’s ability to develop the regional economy equitably. 

“We have empirical evidence that disparity has grown, meaning opportunity has been denied to those who have not had the traditional advantages of contracting,” Bowman said. “I would ask you a question: How many Caucasian males have come before this committee saying that they have not had enough work in the last 20 years?”

Since 1998, the number of certified minority-owned businesses has dropped to almost half. Supporters of affirmative action say it would bring back fairness and equity to Washington and bring diversity to public employment and contracting.

KVI radio host John Carlson chaired the campaign for the initiative to ban affirmative action. He told the Senate committee that the state does not need to institute racial preferences to promote diversity.

“Yes, you can emphasize race and you can hire by quota but doing so is divisive, it’s toxic and most important it’s unfair,” Carlson said. “We don’t need to go back to those days. In fact, the more diverse our society becomes, the more imperative it is, the more essential it is that we treat people the same.”

The bill to repeal the ban on affirmative action does not institute hiring quotas, however. Federal affirmative action law expressly forbids using employment quotas.

Seven other states ban affirmative action in the United States, including California. Most of the bans were enacted through citizen initiatives.