Tucson airport scraps use of racial preferences in contracting

by Mark Flatten
Goldwater Institute
The operators of Tucson International Airport have scrapped the use of racial preferences in awarding concession contracts. That is in sharp contrast to efforts by the City of Phoenix to preserve race-based programs at Sky Harbor International Airport.
The Goldwater Institute reported in October that the Disadvantaged Business Enterprises (DBE) program at Sky Harbor has allowed lucrative airport concession leases to go to a small group of political insiders. The owners of companies deemed “disadvantaged” are often little more than a name on the lease, brought in to meet requirements for participation by minority and woman-owned businesses that are set by Sky Harbor officials.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the program at Sky Harbor is Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, owner of a DBE-certified business which is part owner of a Chili’s restaurant franchise in Terminal 4.

Airport operators in both Phoenix and Tucson suspended their use of “race-conscious” methods after a 2005 federal court ruling required detailed disparity studies to justify using race as a factor in awarding concession contracts. If airport operators cannot meet their goals through race-neutral means, they can resort to “race-conscious” preferences based on race and gender, if they can prove those methods are necessary to offset the effects of discrimination.

Even though Tucson did not attempt to preserve the preference program it had been using before the court ruling, it still has a goal that 16 percent of airport concession sales will be attributed to firms owned by minorities and women. But airport operators will achieve that goal without resorting to preferences that take race or gender into account, according to Paula Winn, spokeswoman for the airport authority.

Phoenix, on the other hand, has gone to great expense to justify the preference program at Sky Harbor. Phoenix officials commissioned a disparity study in 2007 that to-date has cost taxpayers more than $600,000. The study results are due in December. While the study has been underway, Phoenix extended leases issued while race and gender preferences were in effect.

Regardless of the study results, on the 2010 election ballot Arizona voters will have their say in whether or not government offices can use race and gender preferences in contracting.
Mark Flatten is an investigative reporter for the Goldwater Institute.

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