SACRAMENTO (AP) — Bowing to pressure from within their party, Democrats in the Legislature on Monday abandoned an attempt to repeal the voter-approved ban on affirmative action in the state’s higher education system.
Assembly Speaker John Perez said he does not have enough support to place the constitutional amendment before voters in November. Instead, he said lawmakers will form a task force to study the issue of access in higher education.
California voters passed Proposition 209 in 1996, banning the use of race and ethnicity in public university admissions, state hiring and contracting. The amendment, SCA5, was initiated to address the drop-off in black and Latino admissions, primarily in the University of California system. The amendment’s author, Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Covina, asked Perez to spike the effort until there was broader debate.
“This is really driven most by my interest in making sure we come up with the best policy,” Perez told reporters during a news conference. “As it’s currently written, I don’t think SCA5 gives us that.”
Asian enrollment in the UC system has been more than double their share of California’s total population since the ban on racial preferences took effect, and SCA5 drew a fierce backlash within that community.
Three Democratic Asian senators who voted for the constitutional amendment when it passed the Senate on a party-line vote in January wrote Perez last week asking that he not proceed with debate on the amendment.
The lawmakers, Sens. Ted Lieu of Torrance, Carol Liu of La Canada Flintridge and Leland Yee of San Francisco, said they had heard from thousands of people expressing concerns about the amendment in the weeks after their votes. Many Asians told the lawmakers they worried that reinstating racial preferences in the UC and California State University admissions process would leave their children shut out of the college of their choice.
“As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children,” the lawmakers said in their letter to Perez, dated March 11.
Perez said the letter was not his primary reason for shelving the matter, saying he is “rarely driven” by viewpoints of lawmakers in the other chamber. The office of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Perez said the task force would make policy recommendations and consider how reduced higher education funding and court decisions affect minority enrollment at public schools.
Internal Democratic dissent might have been just one of Perez’s concerns in putting the issue on hold.
The political calculations for this year’s election season also are in play. The proposed constitutional amendment was a point of discussion at this past weekend’s California GOP convention, with some Republicans planning to use it as a way to drive a wedge between Democrats and Asian voters in this year’s campaigns.
The amendment can be placed on a statewide ballot only with two-thirds votes in both houses of the Legislature. If Democrats lose their supermajorities in just one of the chambers this year, the amendment is unlikely to succeed. Republicans were unanimous in their opposition when SCA5 passed the Senate.
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