Md. House OKs minority contract goal

State will strive to do 25% of its business with such firms

Senate has approved bill

Target up from 14%

`carve-outs' are set for blacks, women

March 16, 2001|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In a vote that underscores the growing political power of African-Americans and women in Maryland, the House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly yesterday to set a goal of doing one-quarter of its billions of dollars of contracting with minority businesses.

The 115-19 vote, which followed Senate approval of the bill last week, hands Gov. Parris N. Glendening a resounding victory on one of his top priorities of the legislative session. The legislation, which passed both houses with no significant compromise by the governor, sped through with no debate and bipartisan support.

The bill, which raises the state's goal from 14 percent to 25 percent, gives Maryland one of the most aggressive minority contracting targets in the country. Its passage runs counter to a national trend of backing away from affirmative action goals in the face of adverse court rulings.

Glendening expressed elation over the size of the majority. "We set the goal high and the legislature agreed with us," he said. "I see this as an opportunity to broaden the number of people who are in the prosperity we have in Maryland."

Anthony Robinson, president of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense and Education Fund in Washington, hailed the vote as "a real breakthrough."

"Most definitely, it has national significance," Robinson said. "I think it puts Maryland in a leadership position."

Glendening announced his support for a 25 percent goal in his State of the State speech in January amid widespread doubt that he could achieve that number. Many lawmakers expected him to compromise at about 21 percent.

But a vocal, coordinated campaign by the black and women's caucuses - backed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. - helped overcome the doubts of conservative Democrats and many Republicans.

Lawmakers said the Assembly's handling of the issue showed a dramatic change in the political climate from 1995 - the last time it debated minority business goals.

"There was a lot of contention - a big floor fight," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

That year, Glendening was forced to accept a compromise 14 percent goal after proposing an increase to 18 percent. The watered-down bill passed the House 87-48 over vehement opposition from Republicans, only three of whom supported the legislation.

This year, the opposition was muted and almost half of the Republican caucus - even some of the most conservative members - voted yes. Only one Democrat, Del. Kevin Kelly of Allegany County, voted no.

Yesterday's action was not final because the Senate and House must still reconcile their versions of the bill. But those differences are expected to be resolved easily.

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a key supporter who helped shepherd the bill through the Commerce and Government Matters Committee, said the pivotal moment in the struggle to keep the 25 percent goal came a week ago when members of the two caucuses walked off the House floor for a rally in the lounge. At the time, House leaders were suggesting that they might have to compromise to get the bill through the conservative panel.

That show of force helped mobilize the speaker and the governor, who stepped up their lobbying efforts with committee members. The panel voted 16-4 to reject an amendment cutting the goal and 17-3 to approve the bill.

"The votes were probably there all along," the Baltimore Democrat said. "They just needed that extra push at the end."

Del. Sue Hecht, chairman of the women's caucus, gave much of the credit for the bill's passage to Branch, a Baltimore Democrat. The Frederick County Democrat said Branch suggested to her early in the session that the two caucuses, which had been at odds in 1995, work together on the minority business issue this year.

The two groups came to an early agreement on "carve-outs" within the overall 25 percent goal - 10 percent for women-owned businesses and 7 percent for African-American firms. The numbers were based on a state-commissioned study of the availability of minority-owned businesses.

Legal challenges

That report, which put the availability of minority and women contractors at 26.9 percent and their utilization at 17 percent, is expected to provide the underpinning of the state's defense of the legislation against expected legal challenges.

Glendening said that after hearing reports of possible compromise, he met with committee Chairman John F. Wood Jr. and other legislators to insist on the 25 percent and the carve-outs.

"Any other numbers would have been arbitrary, and once you have an arbitrary number - more or less - it can't be defended in court," the governor said.

The 25 percent in the bill is a statewide target, not a hard-and-fast set-aside. Like the current minority business enterprise program, it allows for variations in the availability of minority contractors in different regions and industries,

Taylor said legislators understood the distinctions.

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