Originally created 04/28/97

S.C. could lose highway money of racial bill passes



COLUMBIA - The state Highway Department could lose federal money for roads, and colleges and universities may have a tougher time recruiting minority students if the Legislature outlaws racial set-asides.

State Rep. Hunter Limbaugh, R-Florence, has proposed an amendment to keep the state from using gender, race or similar standards in granting any preferential treatment.

The bill is expected to pass in the House this week.

The legislation specifically says it won't affect the state Human Affairs Commission's efforts to make sure state agencies consider women and minorities when hiring. But officials there are worried that managers will miss that point.

"I think it's going to cause a great deal of confusion," said Georgia Ouzts, legal counsel for the Human Affairs Commission.

The legislation, scheduled for debate Wednesday, is sponsored by 53 of the House's 123 members. It is expected to pass fairly easily. But most people expect it to die in the 46-member Senate, where 18 of the 37 members who answered a survey conducted in December by The (Columbia) State opposed the idea.

The Commission requires state agencies to figure out the racial and gender breakdown of the qualified work force and try to make their staffs match those numbers. State law calls for withholding state money from agencies that don't make a good-faith effort to meet their goals.

Opponents and supporters say they're unsure how hiring would be affected by the bill, which would make it illegal to use race and gender "as a criterion for either discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to" anyone.

However, the legislation probably would have a big effect on set-asides at the Transportation Department.

Federal law requires that at least 10 percent of federal highway money go to businesses owned by "socially and economically disadvantaged individuals."

Last year, $28 million of the $213 million in federal highway money that the state spent on roads went to businesses owned by "disadvantaged" people, said Linda McDonald, a department attorney.

She said the state could lose all its federal road money if the legislation forces the state to abandon its set-aside program.

The bill

State Rep. Hunter Limbaugh, R-Florence, has proposed an amendment to keep the state from using gender, race or similar standards in granting any preferential treatment.

The legislation probably would have a big effect on set-asides at the Transportation Department. Last year, $28 million of the $213 million in federal highway money that the state spent on roads went to businesses owned by "disadvantaged" people, said a department attorney. The bill is expected to pass in the House this week.