Leaders of Maryland's Legislative Black Caucus said yesterday that they will seek to extend the life of a program that sets aside a portion of state contracts for minority- and women-owned businesses.
The announcement came two days after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) said at a public meeting that the program "needs to end." Later in the meeting, Ehrlich expanded on the remark, acknowledging discrimination in the past and saying the state's "collective goal" is to end the Minority Business Enterprise program "at a certain point in time."
Jones had support.
(Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
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The governor's comments, and similar ones made at the same meeting by Comptroller William Donald Schaefer (D), set off a wave of criticism from Democratic lawmakers, who lambasted the governor and Schaefer for what they called insensitivity to the plight of minority-owned businesses.
"If this problem is not checked today, then tomorrow there will be no MBE program," Del. Rudolph C. Cane (D-Wicomico), chairman of the caucus, told reporters yesterday. "Our future has to be protected."
Flanked by the General Assembly's top Democratic leaders, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), Cane said the black caucus will submit legislation to extend the set-aside program until 2012.
Under current law, the program is set to expire next year. It has been extended several times since its inception in 1978.
The goal of the program, under 2001 legislation, is to award 25 percent of state contracts to minority- or women-owned businesses.
About 45 Democratic lawmakers -- white, black, Asian and Hispanic, male and female -- stood behind Cane and Sen. Verna L. Jones (D-Baltimore), vice chairman of the black caucus, during the news conference.
"This is beyond racial lines," Busch said.
Commented Miller: "This is a very progressive state, but we need to keep moving forward."
The topic arose at a bimonthly meeting of the Board of Public Works when Schaefer questioned the set-aside program.
"When does M-B-E end -- E-N-D?" Schaefer asked. "This was not to be a permanent program."
"Do you want the legal answer or the philosophical, political answer?" Ehrlich replied, later adding that ending MBE will be "difficult to achieve . . . because it surrounds race politics, and race politics is real ugly."
"There have been real problems in the past, and 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," Ehrlich said.
Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said yesterday that the governor has not taken a position on the legislation proposed yesterday but "has said he is willing to work with the black caucus with regard to advancing minority business enterprise reform in the state."