JEFFERSON CITY - Sixteen hands went up in the crowded hearing room when the committee chair asked for testimony against the bill. This outpouring of opposition to a bill that would prohibit most state set-asides for minorities and women followed in stark contrast to the silence that met the call for witnesses on its behalf.
Bill sponsor Sen. Steve Ehlmann, the Senate's GOP leader, said he wants to create a level playing field for minorities in Missouri, but that the state's current approach is misguided. The St. Charles Republican is presenting his bill as a moderate alternative to the more drastic measure taken by a California initiative that amended its constitution to prohibit preferential treatment based on sex or race in public employment, contracting and education.
Ehlmann's bill would bar discrimination based on race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin in the same areas -- without a constitutional amendment. It also has a provision that would allow their reinstatement in certain cases. One area that would be very affected by the measure are state department programs that set goals for using minority contractors.
The state administration has set a goal awarding five percent of most departments' contract dollars to minority or women-owned businesses.
According to an administration report submitted to Gov. Mel Carnahan this year, roughly one percent of Missouri contract dollars go to minority-owned businesses, said Sen. Bill Clay, D-St. Louis.
Ehlmann said his bill distinguishes between what he called "racial preferences" versus "affirmative action." According to Ehlmann, racial preferences involve using different standards for different groups at the time of awarding a contract or admission. As an example of racial preferences, Ehlmann cited a former admissions policy of the University of California that set different qualifying grade point averages for different ethnic groups. An example of affirmative action, Ehlmann said, would include outreach programs or training aimed at a particular group.
Ehlmann's bill would nullify state policies that call for minority and women participation in employment, education and contracting. Such policies could only be reinstated after a lawsuit if plaintiffs proved they had suffered from pervasive and systematic discrimination.
After such a finding, the policies would be eliminated either after the discrimination was no longer present or after two years, whichever came first. The Transport Ion Department would be exempt from the measure as federal law requires that department awards ten percent of its contract dollars to what it calls "disadvantaged business enterprises."
The bill would require Kansas City, for example, to eliminate its purchasing goals and then reinstate them after proving that such remedial action was necessary because of institutional discrimination -- even though the city did its own study four years ago and determined the policies were necessary.
"There continues to be substantial and pervasive discrimination in our market area, Kansas City," said Michael Bates of Kansas City's Human Relations Department. "Do we have to go through this whole process again? Recodify?"
Several opponents testified that the bill placed too much burden on the person who had suffered discrimination.
Colette Holt, an lawyer who specializes in such local and state government work, said the current version of the bill makes it impossible to prove discrimination occurred.
"The state of Missouri will not meet this test," Hold said. "In effect, you're going to have no programs."
Cutting programs aimed to include minority and women contractors are necessary to curb institutional prejudice, Holt argued. Michigan, she said, was an example of the need for such programs. The Michigan Transportation Department had two procurement programs -- one funded by state funds and another by federal dollars.
The federal program required minority and otherwise disadvantaged business contract participation and, in 1995, met its goals of ten percent. The state program, however, had no such goals and only awarded about one percent to such businesses. That these were the "same market, same contractors and same bureaucrats" showed that institutional discrimination is indeed a problem, she said.
Other witnesses testified that minority enrollment in universities and professional schools suffered with such policies, that some scholarships would be at risk and that similar policies were necessary to ensure access to opportunity.
The committee did not have time to hear the testimony of seven witnesses in opposition to the bill. The hearing on Ehlmann's bill is scheduled to continue next Monday.