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51-27 House Vote Kills Bill to End Affirmative Action

3 min read

The state House of Representatives voted Wednesday to defeat a bill that would have ended affirmative action in state hiring and outlawed Arkansas’ goals for steering some procurement contracts to minority and women-owned businesses.

A bipartisan vote was 51-27.

The legislation, Senate Bill 71 by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro and Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okalona, would have made it unlawful for state agencies to give preferences based on race or sex in employment, education and state spending. It would have given a two-year timeline for the state to recalibrate preference based on merit and needs, Sullivan told Arkansas Business in March.

The bill had stalled in a House committee last month but was resurrected on Monday when the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee gave it a do-pass recommendation.

Several representatives spoke out passionately against the bill, and 33 Republican lawmakers joined all of the House’s 18 Democrats in voting against it. It had narrowly passed in the Senate last month, with all of the upper chamber’s women and Democrats rejecting it.

SB71 would have upended the work of a division of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, its Minority & Women-Owned Business Enterprise unit. The division sets goals for procurement business to go to enterprises owned by minorities, women and disabled veterans. The procurement goals have never had the force of law, but state agencies are required to track how much procurement business goes to those entities.

It also would have outlawed programs for raising the number of minorities in teaching positions in Arkansas schools and universities.

It also would have ended the AEDC’s list of minority and women-owned businesses.

Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock, said he himself had benefited from affirmative action and recalled that his father had been forced to fight for the right to vote. “I say to you today, that is the reason why I’m here, and many of our colleagues are here, is because of affirmative action.”

Gonzalez conceded that racism still exists in Arkansas, but echoed a defense of the bill often mentioned by Sullivan: “One thing that I’m trying to say is that you don’t stop discrimination with discrimination.” Sullivan told Arkansas Business last month that in some cases under today’s policies, white men are discriminated against.

He said his intent was to move Arkansas closer to the tenets of the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” Discriminating against anyone on the basis of sex or race is wrong, Sullivan said last month.

The legislation’s goal, he said, is simply for the best applicant to win.

The bill faced powerful opposition from the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas, led by Anna Beth Gorman, as well as from minority entrepreneurs and others. Black business owners like Loretta Lever of Choice Promotions and Mary M. Parham of J Kelly Referrals had spoken out publicly against the bill.

Parham, the Little Rock Regional Chamber’s 2021 Minority Legacy Business honoree, said the legislation would have set the state back 100 years.

Gorman said SB71 wasn’t a referendum on affirmative action as most people understand the concept. “If it had been specific to affirmative action in higher ed then we would have seen a different response and outcome,” she said. “This bill was an attack on state-led and supported programs that address and respond to vulnerable Arkansans; women, people of color, disabled veterans, and a host of communities that fall under the category of minority populations.”

She said the bipartisan response in the opposition came “because we can agree that the state must be able to respond to the unique needs and challenges of people in our state.”

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, voted against the bill last month, fearing it might disrupt the state’s Minority Health Commission in its work to cut Arkansas’ high maternal death rate in Black childbirth. She also wanted to continue supporting the state registry of minority and women-owned businesses.

“In the state of Arkansas, minority is defined as an ethnic minority, a woman and a disabled veteran,” she told Arkansas Business. “What Senator Sullivan’s bill would do is remove the few programs that are designed to enhance the ability of those underserved groups to develop the skill sets that will allow them to increase the economy of this state and this nation.”

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