Caltrans Drops Race Element in Federally Funded Contracts

Jason B. Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle, May 6, 2006

Caltrans announced this week that it will no longer use race as a factor in awarding federally funded contracts, a change that affirmative action critics have praised while minority groups are vowing to fight the move that they say will harm thousands of California businesses.

State Transportation Director Will Kempton, in a letter posted on the agency’s Web site, said Caltrans must make its policy race-neutral because it could not show sufficient evidence that minority groups have suffered discrimination in the state’s contracting industry, a standard required under a recent decision by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

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Leaders of the California Legislature’s Asian, black and Latino caucuses have written to Kempton to voice their displeasure. And some activists want minority voters to oppose proposed infrastructure bond measures. Caltrans changed the program Monday, citing a recent decision by the appeals court.

Caltrans has a goal of giving 10.5 percent of its federal contracting dollars to disadvantaged businesses. The percentage of Caltrans’ federal dollars that went to minority—and female-owned businesses last year was 8.9 percent.

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“Caltrans funds so many different projects around the state that we saw this as a major problem, and it was contrary to what voters did when they adopted Prop. 209,” which outlawed race-based hiring practices in the state, said Sharon Browne of the Pacific Legal Foundation. The group had threatened to sue Caltrans over its disadvantaged business program.

The agency’s decision to make its program race-neutral could also affect the few remaining race-based affirmative action programs in California since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996.

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Retired San Jose-based contractor Paul Guerrero wants to rally minority voters to oppose future infrastructure ballot measures.

“We’re going to urge the minority community to vote no on any bonds or infrastructure programs that come up until this is resolved,” said Guerrero, who lives in Stockton.

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