Suit: Race, Gender a Factor in Caltrans Deals

Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, June 12, 2009

An association of contractors accused Caltrans in a lawsuit Thursday of colluding with the Obama administration to flout California’s ban on race and sex preferences by reserving some state road-building contracts for companies owned by minorities and women.

“Caltrans is sideswiping the important principle of equal opportunity by using race, not lowest cost by a responsible bidder, to decide who gets government road and highway contracts,” said Sharon Browne, a Pacific Legal Foundation attorney who filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

The plaintiffs, the Associated General Contractors’ San Diego chapter, seek to overturn the state Department of Transportation’s decision in March to set aside 6.75 percent of federally funded road contracts to minority- and female-owned firms or to require contractors to make good-faith efforts to reach that goal.

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The Schwarzenegger administration adopted the current program in March with the approval of the Obama administration, based on a Caltrans study that found minority- and female-owned companies were persistently underrepresented in state transportation funding–receiving only 2.2 percent of federal contracting dollars, compared with a stated goal of 13.5 percent.

A Federal Highway Administration official told Caltrans in a Feb. 25 letter that failing to take immediate steps to reach that goal could bring penalties that “may include withholding federal funds,” particularly the congressionally approved stimulus funds.

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Browne said the department had unsuccessfully sought federal approval for race-conscious contracting for two years and finally got it after Obama took office.

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Caltrans declined comment on the suit. The NAACP’s state president, Alice Huffman, said the contractor plaintiffs were trying to move the state backward.

“Caltrans needs more equal opportunity in contracting with businesses owned by people of color–not less,” she said.

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