A Republican lawmaker, reacting to bills affirming contracting preferences for women and minorities, is trying to outlaw the practice with a constitutional amendment.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said Thursday he knew there would not be enough time in the legislative session to even get his proposal, which would ban racial or gender contracting preferences, to committee. But, he said, he wanted to do whatever he could to undercut the affirmative action bills.
“I think it’s a good counterpoint to those ridiculous bills encouraging this,” Grothman said. “What can I say?”
The bills prompting Grothman’s proposal would make permanent a 25 percent minority contracting goal for projects that receive affordable housing tax credits and restore a state program that gives grants and loans to minority businesses.
“That’s just horrible,” Grothman said. “It’s this divisive stuff where we give credits to perhaps less qualified people based on ancestry and gender, and we just can’t have it.”
The Wisconsin Senate adjourned for the session on Thursday without voting on either bill.
But society needs such laws to balance historic discrimination that still hurts minorities today, said Curtiss Harris, executive director of the African American Chamber of Commerce Inc., Milwaukee.
“To me, it’s important to keep those programs,” he said, “even though, more importantly, it’s important to give those programs teeth.”
Harris said past discrimination means many minority businesses are not as old as nonminority businesses. In industries such as construction, that means minority businesses still are trying to build capacity while the competitors already have it, he said.
“They are saying, ‘Let us benefit from what we did back then, but let’s not correct it,’” Harris said.
Grothman’s proposed amendment to the state constitution would prevent preferential treatment for contractors based on gender, race, religion and ancestry. The amendment must be approved by two consecutive sessions of the Wisconsin Legislature and ratified by voters. The amendment has six co-sponsors, all Republicans.
Eric Peterson, chief of staff for Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, said low employment rates among black residents in Milwaukee and the limited amount of state contracting money going to minority-owned builders prove the importance of preference programs. Taylor is sponsoring both bills Grothman is opposing.
“Fifty-percent unemployment among African-American males in Milwaukee, I think, speaks for itself,” Peterson said. “There are a lot of folks who need jobs in the urban centers.”
Wisconsin in 2008 exceeded for the first time its goal of giving 5 percent of state contracts to minority-owned companies.
Grothman dismissed the idea that low minority contracting numbers show the firms are victims of discrimination, saying “most businesses fail.”
“The idea that you have a hard time founding a new business just because of where your ancestry is from,” he said, “is just a divisive bit of excuse-making.”