A Washington law passed last year raised hopes among minority and marginalized populations whose access to public resources has withered since affirmative action was banned in the state in 1998.
But before the law went into effect and reintroduced diversity goals into public education, employment and bidding for public contracts, it was put on the November ballot and died.
Since then, the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneous economic recession has highlighted discriminatory health, educational, employment and economic disparities that have disproportionately affected minority and marginalized communities including seniors, women, persons with disabilities, persons of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
Concerned by the impacts of the public health emergency on these vulnerable groups, Dr. Terryl Ross, a physician involved in treating coronavirus patients, has sponsored a new attempt to overturn the 1998 law. This time around, a public health component has been added.
Initiative 1776, which will appear on the November 2020 ballot if it garners 269,000 signatures by July 2, seeks to achieve the following:
- Requires Washington state to provide COVID-19 vaccines to all Washington residents who voluntarily give their fully informed consent for a vaccination, at no cost to the patient;
- Prohibits age discrimination in public employment, public education & public contracting;
- Redefines Affirmative Action to require that all candidates must be qualified to receive public education, employment and contracting opportunities;
- Defines preferential treatment for the first time in state law;
- Prohibits Quotas; but allows Goals & Timetables to achieve Diversity;
- Expands Affirmative Action to include all Veterans;
- Expands the terms sexual orientation and LGBTQ+ to all state anti-discrimination laws.
By some estimates, small businesses owned by minorities and women have missed out on about $3.5 billion in government contracts since the 1998 law went into effect.
A disparity report released by the Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises in July 2019 found “systemic and endemic inequalities in the ability of firms owned by minorities for women to have full and fair access to state contracts and associated subcontracts.”
In the four years leading up to the 1998 ban, women- and minority-owned small businesses secured about 10 percent of Washington spending goods, services and contracts, according to a report by the same office. By 2018, the same businesses received only 3.6 percent of state spending on goods, services and contracts.
“Absent some affirmative state measures, these inequities create disparate impacts on [minority- and women-owned businesses] and may render the state a passive participant in overall market-wide discrimination,” the report concluded.