Bill raises goal to 30%

Black builders seek more state pacts in program under fire

Blacks seek more Md. business in program under fire

Affirmative action

March 10, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

With affirmative action under legal assault in Maryland and nationwide, lawmakers in Annapolis are being asked to keep steering government contracts to minority-owned businesses -- even to more than double them.

Contending that the state's 22-year-old minority-contracting program is a success, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has called on the General Assembly to extend it for one more year while a study is done to justify its legality.

At the same time, minority-owned businesses unhappy with the program are pushing a bill that would more than double the state's goal for minority participation in government contracts, from 14 percent to 30 percent.

"Give us a better deal, because right now we're not getting a fair deal," Arnold M. Jolivet, president of the Maryland Minority Contractors Association, urged the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee yesterday.

Lawmakers are weighing two bills. The Glendening administration's bill would continue the status quo for a year. Another by African-American legislators would extend the program for two years and expand it.

Begun in 1978, the Minority Business Enterprise program is scheduled to expire July 1 unless the legislature acts.

Yesterday's hearing sought to determine whether firms owned by African-Americans and other ethnic minorities got an appropriate share last year of the nearly $3.4 billion in state contracts for construction, maintenance, supplies and other services.

"All the business is going to white females," said Calvin Mims, president of Calmi Electrical Co. Inc. "The program is not working as it was intended."

"We believe we have a good program," said John D. Porcari, state transportation secretary, whose agency oversees all minority contracting. He said the program can be improved, but because of the legal threats, any changes should come only after a study has been done to show they are necessary.

Baltimore's municipal minority-contracting program was recently overturned in federal court because it lacked such a study. A lawsuit is pending against the state's program, filed by a Frederick County contractor who contends he was illegally denied a highway project because he did not have enough minority subcontractors.

The Glendening administration had planned to seek a five-year renewal of the program this year, but opted instead for a year's extension after switching consultants recently on the study needed to fend off court challenges.

The state hired MGT of America Inc. in 1998 for $681,000 to find evidence that minority firms continue to lag in receiving state contracts. Such disparity studies are important because the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that race-based contracting programs are unconstitutional unless they are narrowly tailored to remedy documented discrimination.

The Florida consultant found that women-owned contracting firms got more than twice as many transportation jobs as did more numerous black contractors.

But three months ago, the state suspended its contract with MGT. A new consultant, National Economic Research Associates of Cambridge, Mass., has since been hired for $987,000 to finish the study by the end the year.

Administration officials say the MGT study was flawed and might have made the state's program vulnerable to lawsuits. But minority contractors contend the study was rejected because it supported their complaints.

"Someone is not watching the program the way they should be," said Lisa Harris, a lobbyist for a coalition of minority contractors.

Deirdre Kyle, who handles MGT's disparity studies, defended her firm's work in a telephone interview from Tallahassee. She contends that some Maryland officials withheld information, undermining her work. "Not everybody wants the study," she said.

State officials declined to detail their problems with MGT yesterday, citing the likelihood they would file suit to recover $500,000 paid to the consultant.

The administration released its own figures showing that minority firms got 20 percent of the state's business last year, or $687 million. Of that amount, African-American companies got 27 percent, second only to sheltered workshops for the mentally retarded.

"Maryland is actually meeting [its minority-contracting] goal," said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, "but it is not having a positive impact on African-Americans."

The Baltimore Democrat is chief sponsor of the bill that would increase the goal to 30 percent. Her bill also would increase the number of state contracts subject to minority-participation goals.

The renewal may not matter if the state winds up in court. "To have begun a study that failed, and then to continue the program anyhow, when no one knows what the new study will show -- is a vulnerable position to be in," said George LaNoue, director of UMBC's Project on Civil Rights and Public Contracting.

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