Set-aside bill wins House test

Governor's key bill handily wins vote of `good-old-boy' panel

It also gains in Senate

Measure sets goal for state in hiring minority contractors

March 10, 2001|By Michael Dresser | By Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening's bill raising the state's minority contracting goal from 14 percent to 25 percent appeared on the road to passage yesterday after clearing two important hurdles in the General Assembly.

With prodding from the governor and Speaker Casper R. Taylor, the conservative-leaning House Commerce and Government Matters Committee approved the legislation by a 17-3 vote. The panel acted after rejecting an amendment that would have cut the goal to 21 percent.

Earlier in the day, the Senate turned back a series of Republican amendments, including one that would have cut the goal to 18 percent. The Senate then went on to give the bill preliminary approval - with final passage expected next week.

Glendening has made an increase in the minority contracting goal one of his top objectives in the 2001 Assembly session. The bill has stirred opposition among non-minority contractors, whose trade association pushed to have the matter deferred until next year.

Michelle Byrnie, the governor's press secretary, said Glendening was pleased at the strong vote for the 25 percent goal.

"The governor feels that it is vitally important to give minorities and women a better chance to participate in state contracts," she said. "It also sets an example for private industry."

Del. Talmadge Branch, chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, said the margin of the committee vote indicates that the bill will have little trouble on the House floor.

"We were very excited to see that happen when we were standing there expecting a much closer vote," said the Baltimore Democrat.

The bill will still have to be reconciled with the Senate version of the legislation, but lawmakers said the differences are relatively insignificant.

From its introduction, there has been little doubt the bill could pass in some form. But as recently as Wednesday, there were serious doubts whether it could pass without being diluted.

The most formidable obstacle was the Commerce and Government Matters Committee. The panel, which is generally more conservative than the House, was dubbed the "good-old-boys committee" by a leading African-American legislator - a name that has since found its way onto a bumper-sticker sported by some of its members.

On Wednesday, Taylor suggested the goal might have to be lowered to get the bill out of the committee. That brought a strong reaction Thursday from African-American and female House members - two powerful blocs the speaker has courted diligently. Leaders of their caucuses met with the speaker that day to reaffirm their insistence on the 25 percent goal.

Legislators said that pressure helped mobilize the speaker and the governor to step up their efforts to round up swing votes on the committee.

A breakthrough came later that day when proponents agreed to accept an amendment by Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican, calling for a study of whether to bring white males from "distressed" jurisdictions under the program. They include Baltimore and six counties in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Committee members said the amendment helped sway the votes of moderate to conservative legislators, including Glassman and two other Republicans. Three Republicans, all from Western Maryland, opposed the bill.

Some members expressed concern that the bill was setting the bar too high in rural areas and would force contractors to look out of state for minority subcontractors.

"I think we have a problem in the rural areas and we don't know what to do about it," said Del. John F. Wood Jr., the committee chairman. But Wood, a St. Mary's County Democrat who had earlier expressed doubts about the 25 percent goal, said the final version was "the best bill that could have come out" of the committee.

Del. Sue Hecht, chairman of the women's caucus, called the result "historic." The Frederick Democrat said it was the first time her group had formally joined forces with the Legislative Black Caucus on an important issue.

In the Senate, where the bill passed through committee with little difficulty, Republicans attempted to attach amendments on the floor yesterday.

The key vote came on Minority Leader Martin G. Madden's attempt to cut the overall goal to 18 percent and to eliminate "carve-outs" that would set goals of 7 percent for African-American companies and 10 percent for women-owned businesses.

The Howard County Republican argued that the lower goal would be less vulnerable to court challenges.

But Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, countered that the 25 percent figure was based on a state-commissioned report that found minority-owned businesses made up 26.9 percent of the potential contractors available in the marketplace.

The amendment failed, with 12 Republicans and Democratic Sen. Walter Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, voting against it.

The state report, done by Chicago-based National Economic Research Associates, is important because the Glendening administration is counting on it to provide the legal underpinning for the minority business goal.

The U.S. Supreme Court has insisted that any minority preference program have a rational basis for any goals set through it. The high court has also ruled out hard-and-fast quotas for minority contracting.

Frosh insisted that would not be a problem under the governor's bill.

"There is no quota here. These are all goals," he said.

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