Virginia officials may go to court to challenge new federal regulations aimed at increasing the amount of highway construction money allotted to minority-owned businesses, Gov. John N. Dalton said yesterday.
"Unless the [federal] Department of Transportation backs off, we've got a real problem that may not be solved except in court," Dalton said at a news conference in Richmond. He cited both a state constitutional bar against racial discrimination and a state law requiring awards of contracts to the lowest bidder.
"If we get into awarding contracts on the basis of the color of a person's skin and spend more tax dollars, well, I think that's going the wrong way," Dalton added.
At issue are the U.S. Transportation Department's first overall regulations designed to increase awards of highway, mass transit and other transportation contracts to black- and other minority-owned business. The rules went into effect in April and states must submit plans for carrying them out by Aug. 1, according to DOT official.
Under the regulations, Virginia and other states are required to set goals for minority participation in federally financed transportation projects. The states must then show they have made "sufficient reasonable efforts" to meet these goals, according to the official.
Earlier this month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress may impose racial quotas for distributing federal money as a remedy for past discrimination. The decision centered on a 1977 law setting aside 10 percent of federal public works contracts for minority-controlled firms.
The DOT official said the recently issued transportation regulations were part of the Carter administration's continuing efforts to expand minority participation in federally aided programs.
Virginia receives considerable transportation aid. Although the state and federal governments operate on differing fiscal years, Virginia and DOT figures indicate the state has been allotted approximately $300 million in federal highway funds this year.
Dalton noted at his news conference that the state plans to advertise for bids on about $60 million in federal highway construction contracts July 29 to beat the federal Aug. 1 deadline.
Al Coates, assistant to the Virginia highway commissioner, said later that the state has sought an exemption from sections of the new DOT regulations that could head off a possible court test. "We are waiting for an answer [from DOT] on that," Coates said in a telephone interview.
Virginia is prepared to set overall goals for minority participation in transportation contracts and to require contractors to show "good faith efforts" to achieve this aim, Coates said. But the state, he added, is opposed to any rule allowing awards of contracts to a minority-backed firm that fails to submit the lowest bid.
"We have no problem of setting a numerical goal," Coates said. "There's no conflict on the objectives.