Lawmakers rush to support MBE

They promise legislation to maintain program backing minority business contracts with state

General Assembly

February 05, 2005|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Dozens of state lawmakers vowed yesterday to ensure Maryland's commitment to minority participation in state work, promising legislation that would keep a minority business contracting program in effect through 2012.

Del. Rudolph C. Cane, a Wicomico Democrat who is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, told a news conference that he is drafting the legislation in response to a discussion this week between Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. suggesting that the state's Minority Business Enterprise program should end at some point.

And an angry state Sen. Verna L. Jones, first vice president of the black caucus and a Baltimore Democrat, agreed to file a Senate version of that bill, to strengthen support in both legislative chambers.

"You asked when the MBE program is going to end," Jones told journalists, alluding to comments by the governor and comptroller Wednesday. "I ask you when is racism, sexism and blatant discrimination going to end?"

Shareese DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the governor has always supported minority businesses and "the MBE program will be in place." The program, which began in 1978, has no specific end date.

She said the governor has not decided whether he would support Cane's legislation because it has not yet been introduced.

"The governor is certainly willing to review the bill," DeLeaver said. "And the governor is willing to work with the black caucus."

More than 50 delegates and senators attended the noon news conference in the State House, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, both of whom voiced support for the MBE program.

Meanwhile, Ehrlich continued closed-door meetings yesterday - this time with minority business leaders - to allay concerns that he intends to end the MBE program.

The MBE issue arose at Wednesday's Board of Public Works meeting. Schaefer stated that the program never was intended to be permanent and then questioned when it was going to end.

While the governor said that his administration's goal is to "empower MBEs," he also said, "We are attempting to, and achieving some success in, meeting our collective goal, which is to end this program at a certain point in time."

The statements troubled and angered lawmakers and minority business leaders.

"What was stated should not have been said," Cane, an Eastern Shore Democrat, said. "You don't play games with the law."

Wayne Frazier, president of the Baltimore-based Maryland-Washington Minority Contractors' Association Inc. - and the former head of Democrats for Ehrlich - said he believes the governor now will be held accountable for his promise to help these small-business owners.

"The governor is going to have to prove that he is doing the right thing," Frazier said.

Questions about the minority business program also touched off some early campaign rhetoric by two potential gubernatorial challengers in next year's election.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley issued a statement, saying in bold capital letters, "STATE FAILING ON MBE GOALS."

"I strongly disagree with Governor Ehrlich's statement that our effort to support minority-owned businesses `needs to end,'" O'Malley wrote. " ... We should be seeking ways to empower entrepreneurs in every community."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan fired his own shots.

"Perhaps the governor believes the program should be ended because the state has failed to meet its goal of awarding 25 percent of their contracts to minority firms," Duncan wrote. "I have worked hard over the past decade to ensure that disadvantaged firms have equal access to county government contracting dollars."

Even as Ehrlich made his initial comments, he knew the topic could ignite a political storm. "Politically, it's a hot potato," the governor said during the Board of Public Works discussion.

When Maryland's MBE program began, the state set a goal of 10 percent minority participation in state contracts, state officials said. By 2001, that percentage had been increased to 25 percent through the efforts of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

Last year, Ehrlich established several initiatives that emerged from a commission he created, including a race-neutral program that targeted all small businesses. All state agencies now are required to reserve two small procurement contracts for small businesses, regardless of the race or gender of the firms' owners.

The governor's office has begun a review of minority business participation in state work since Ehrlich took office, said Sharon R. Pinder, special secretary of the governor's Office of Minority Affairs.

Pinder said 75 state agencies have been asked to report their minority participation numbers to her office by Friday. She said her office will compile and sort the data for a report scheduled for release April 1.

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