However, some state programs in California that receive federal dollars -- such as certain Caltrans highway projects -- are still required to meet affirmative-action goals.
In 2008, Caltrans discovered that -- most likely due to the 2005 moratorium on race-conscious contracting -- minority- and women-owned businesses were getting skipped over for contracts. In the three years since the 2005 moratorium, the percentage of eligible contracts going to such businesses had plummeted from an average of about 9 percent every year to 2 percent, said Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocca. (The overall goal is 13.5 percent.)
In response to complaints from the Hispanic Contractors Association about the de-listing, Caltrans officials concede that some of the raw data from the comprehensive study might be dated, and say they may run some re-calculations.
"Their issues are legitimate and we understand that," said Robert Padilla, chief of Caltrans' office of business and economic opportunity, which oversees the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program. "We are looking to update this data. If it tells us something different, than we will make the appropriate changes."
Such changes, if necessary, could be made as early as July of 2010, he said.
But for businesses such as Golden Bay Fencing of the San Francisco Bay Area, that could be too late.
"We are kind of sitting here, holding our breath, and we are starting to turn blue," said owner Floyd Chavez.
Co-founded by Chavez and his brother in 1990, Golden Bay Fencing thrived when it benefited from being on the race-conscious list. The company landed huge contracts, such as one at the San Francisco International Airport for designing and constructing a six-foot high, 280-foot-long hydraulic gate that, with the push of a button, retracts into the ground to clear the way for taxiing 747s. It built a similar gate for Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville.
But in the past two years, Chavez's company has shriveled from 60 employees to 12, and is now on the verge of shutdown. Although much of Chavez's misery is attributable to the bad economy, Chavez said the decline really began in 2007, after the end of the race-conscious program.
"All of a sudden, we were getting excluded," he told HispanicBusiness.com. "It's still the good ol' boys network; it's designed for big business."
The disparity study officially got under way in mid 2006, and was finished a year later.
Caltrans farmed out the study to a consulting company based in Colorado called BBC Research and Consulting. In the 500-page study, BBC used extensive mathematical modeling to determine roughly how many Caltrans contracts each of the minority- and women-owned companies would get in the ideal world -- that is, a world in which discrimination or its effects don't put certain companies at an unfair disadvantage.
If the group in question achieved 80 percent or more of that ideal number, they were deemed "at parity." The Hispanic group barely made parity, scoring 81 percent. The other group that achieved parity, Subcontinent Asian Americans -- including people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- exceeded 100 percent, scoring a whopping 125.
The other four were far below the threshold, with Native Americans at 65 percent; women, 48 percent, Asian-Pacific Americans (whose descendents come from places such as Japan, China and Korea), 31 percent; and blacks, 15 percent.
Paul Guerrero, an attorney who also sits on the Caltrans Small Business Council, said he was disappointed about how the study was conducted by a company from out of state.
"We felt there are plenty of knowledgeable companies in California that could do a disparity study," he said. Guerrero added that other California agencies -- such as the Valley Transportation Agency in Silicon Valley -- have conducted disparity studies, and -- unlike BBC -- concluded that Hispanics still suffer from the effects of discrimination.
BBC Research has not returned a call asking for a comment.
After the completion of the disparity study in June of 2007, Caltrans needed approval from the Federal Highway Administration in order to re-initiate its race-conscious program. The FHWA approval process took more than a year. The go-ahead finally arrived in March of 2009, and the race-conscious program was re-launched on April 2.
The new iteration omits not only Hispanics, but also Subcontinent Asian Americans.
However, the two groups aren't being removed entirely from Caltrans' programs for disadvantaged businesses. In lieu of making the "race conscious" list, they were placed on its watered-down equivalent: the "race neutral" program.
Groups in the race-neutral category are eligible for things such as free technical assistance and one-on-one counseling from Caltrans. But when it comes to landing contracts, being in the race-neutral category hasn't borne much fruit of late.
"It's based wholly on good faith," Camacho said.
In its overarching goals, Caltrans has long sought to ensure that 13.5 percent of all federally awarded contracts go to disadvantaged businesses. Half of the contracts -- 6.75 percent -- are supposed to be awarded to groups in the race-conscious category. Historically, the agency has been good about meeting that target. The balance is supposed to come from the race-neutral side, but that goal is seldom met, critics say.
"'Race neutral' is a real nice liberal title for a program that means nothing," Camacho said.
Camacho, 73, served under California Gov. Jerry Brown as the state's chief deputy director of general services in the late 1970s, and has long been an advocate for Hispanic small businesses.
He helped create the Hispanic Contractors Association of California about 10 years ago, but it languished and he finally took full control as the non-profit organization's volunteer president about three years ago. Since then, it has grown to about 150 members, he said.
Camacho said the Hispanic Contractors Association -- which does not currently have a Web site -- won't back down from the fight. But he also said the group isn't eager to file a lawsuit.
"We're not interested in suing anybody -- that's not what we do," he said. "That is the position of last resort.
"We are looking for bidding opportunities," he added. "We are looking for work."
Floyd Chavez of Golden Bay Fencing
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