OLYMPIA – The ability for employers or schools to consider the race or gender of applicants could be reinstated in Washington in the closing days of the legislative session.
An initiative that would relegalize affirmative action in state agencies and publicly funded institutions was approved Thursday by committees in both the House and Senate.
Initiative 1000 would provide opportunity for women and minorities, who have long been the subject of systemic barriers, said Rep. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, a former employment discrimination attorney.
“If we don’t lead as a state on equity, who will?” she asked.
Submitted to the Legislature in January with a record 395,000 signatures, I-1000 would require the state, public schools and businesses with state contracts to implement affirmative action policies.
A person’s membership in a minority group could be considered in employment or education opportunities. But it could not be the sole or deciding factor when considering an applicant. The initiative does not allow the use of quotas.
It would effectively replace I-200, a ban on affirmative action passed by voters in 1998.
Since the passage of I-200, state spending on businesses owned by women and minorities dropped from 10% to 3%, according to the Office of Women and Minority Business Enterprises. Those businesses lost a combined $3.5 billion as a result, the office said.
I-200 passed on a false premise of reverse racism and reverse discrimination, said Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Beacon Hill. That was an “incredible twist on perspective” of what was really going on in America at that time, he said.
The group Asians for Equality, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against the initiative, attended hearings dressed in white T-shirts with the words, “NO SYSTEMIC RACISM! NO I-1000!” They and other opponents believe it would allow for less-qualified applicants to be chosen based on factors such as race or gender.
The initiative is “dubious in its constitutionality,” said Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. “I believe I-1000 undermines that essential ethic of being an American.”
Others, like Rep. Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, said it excludes veterans from opportunities.
But supporters countered that it protects veterans, women and communities of color.
The initiative is clear that membership in a minority group may not be used to favor a less-qualified applicant, said House Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma.
“The initiative is actually not confusingly written in that regard,” Jinkins said. “I am sorry for folks who misunderstand or misstate what I-1000 does.”
The initiative was voted out of both committees on party-line votes and could be considered by the full Legislature before the session ends Sunday. Because it’s not a typical bill, it isn’t restricted by deadlines for other legislation.
The initiative did not receive a hearing until earlier this month, when three former governors – Republican Dan Evans and Democrats Gary Locke and Christine Gregoire – gave their support for the measure. Representatives of Amazon and Microsoft also spoke in favor of the initiative.
If the initiative passes the Democrat-controlled Legislature, it would become law unless opponents can collect enough votes for a referendum on it in November.
If the Legislature doesn’t pass I-1000 by the end of the session, it goes to voters in November.