For the first time, Maryland is on track to meet its annual goal of awarding one-quarter of state contract dollars to minority- or female-owned businesses, Gov. Martin O'Malley said Friday.
O'Malley, who made the announcement at a state-sponsored minority business event in Towson, said the news was particularly meaningful because of the state's budget woes.
"We look at our diversity as a strength," the Democratic governor told the gathering of about 200 business leaders. "We look at it as a competitive advantage."
Maryland's Minority Business Enterprise program, which dates to 1978, is the oldest in the country. The state also has the most aggressive goal in the nation, according to Luwanda W. Jenkins, special secretary of the Governor's Office of Minority Affairs.
The state reached 25 percent in February and is on track to finish the fiscal year at that level, O'Malley said. The fiscal year ends in June.
The governor, who has focused on jobs during his re-election campaign, said his administration has presided over an 80 percent increase in the value of contracts awarded to black-owned businesses and a 123 percent increase in the value of contracts to Hispanic-owned businesses.
Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican and O'Malley's chief rival this fall, has vowed to make business growth a priority. A group of minority-owned business leaders attended his campaign launch last month in Rockville.
When elected in 2002, Ehrlich assigned Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele to head a study of the state's minority business program and recommend changes. In the final year of his administration, 2006, Ehrlich said the state had awarded 21 percent of its contracts to minority-owned businesses.
But Ehrlich's handling of the Minority Business Enterprise program came under scrutiny when reports showed that the state fast-tracked the certification of a firm headed by a Republican strategist with close ties to the administration.
Ehrlich campaign spokesman Andy Barth said, "No credible report ever found any evidence of fast-tracking."
O'Malley said there are two ways for companies and the government to view minority participation. One would be, "It's a drag. It's a pain. We have got to do this politically." The other way, he said, it to see it as an asset and a way to "show the whole world that we actually are diverse."
"We never thought of minority participation as a 'drag,' " Barth said. "We never thought of it as something we 'had to do.' We did what was right."
Minority business participation has been less than 25 percent in some areas. For example, minority businesses were awarded 14 percent of the more than $600 million in state federal stimulus dollars, most of which went to transportation projects.
Minority business owners in Maryland also have complained of missing out on money to be made from the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which is set to bring about 60,000 new jobs to the state.