OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee issued an executive order Monday to potentially restore some affirmative action policies to Washington state public contracting, education and hiring.
Monday’s order begins a process of evaluating how Washington state agencies and schools can diversify and achieve equity while still complying with a two-decade-old voter-approved law that bans affirmative action on the basis of gender or race.
It was unclear Monday what the order — which includes requirements for reports to come in the future — will achieve in the near term.
The governor first announced his intentions to rescind and replace the directives after meeting earlier this month with Black community leaders. The decision drew quick criticism from opponents of affirmative action, who led successful campaigns in 1998 and 2019 against affirmative action at the ballot box.
Monday’s order rolled back the executive directive by then-Gov. Gary Locke barring state agencies from using affirmative action after Washington voters banned it in 1998.
In a statement, Inslee noted that it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day and said his order is geared to “achieve equity within the law in our state.”
“Achieving equal opportunity has always been foundational to our country’s history and each of us bears the responsibility to stand up and keep this unalienable right for all Washingtonians,” the governor said in prepared remarks. “Everyone deserves a fair chance to live to the fullest — everyone.”
In Monday’s order, Inslee directed state human resources officials to come up with a strategy to further diversify public hiring by October.
Those officials “will proactively address and dismantle oppressive systems and practices in the workplace and build new, equitable systems to achieve a workforce that is representative of the diversity of Washington and practices cultural humility,” according to the order.
Additionally, state human resources officials must require all state employees under Inslee’s purview to complete diversity, equity and inclusion training.
Likewise, on education, Inslee’s order directs the Washington Student Achievement Council to prepare a report analyzing “patterns of access and success across student subpopulations” and faculty, as well as state equity demographics at public education institutions.
That report must also review and describe gaps in existing measures to remedy discrimination across higher education, according to the order.
On contracting, the governor’s order directs all state agencies to use a set of guidelines called “Tools for Equity in Public Spending.” That document spells out how Washington agencies should create “meaningful opportunities” for small and diverse businesses to get contracts.
Those tools have been available since last year but were not a requirement before now, according to Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk. Agencies have six months to implement that and other measures in the order, he added.
The new executive order does not change other state and federal legal requirements — including the voter-approved ban on affirmative action, according to the governor’s office. State agencies must consult with the Attorney General’s Office on how to comply.
Inslee’s announcement is the latest in a 20-year debate by Washingtonians and public officials over the role of affirmative action. In 1998, voters decisively supported an effort at the ballot box led by Tim Eyman and known as Initiative 200 to bar affirmative action based on gender or race. Washington voters in 2019 again upheld the ban in a second statewide vote.
But in 2017 the Washington Attorney General Office issued an opinion stating that the ban on affirmative action “does not prohibit all race- and sex-conscious measures.” With that opinion, supporters of affirmative action came to view Locke’s directive banning the policy in state government 20 years ago as overly broad.
Opponents of affirmative action in Washington have cast the policies as divisive and contend that such measures ultimately reward people based on gender, race or ethnicity instead of merit.
Linda Yang, a spokesperson for 2019’s campaign against affirmative action, said earlier this month that voters have clearly rejected affirmative action policies in the two statewide ballot measures.
“I think he (Inslee) should respect voters’ will. If they want to change the law, maybe do another initiative. I am pretty sure we could beat them again,” Yang said then.
Locke, a strong proponent of affirmative action — who worked on a 2019 campaign to lift the ban, an effort that just narrowly failed — praised the move.
“I applaud Gov. Inslee’s actions today,” Locke said in prepared remarks. “Our state has a deep commitment to providing equitable opportunities for all, and now that the attorney general’s office has modified its opinion, it is absolutely appropriate to repeal 98-01 and replace it with something that better reflects our values.”