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Maryland utilities vowed at a state hearing Thursday to push hard to meet a goal of directing $1 of every $4 spent on contracting to businesses owned by minorities, women and service-disabled veterans.

State utilities involved in a contractor diversity program spent $567.64 million in 2015 on goods and services from such minority businesses, about 18 percent of their total procurement spending, up from about 17 percent in 2014, according to a report by the Maryland Public Service Commission.

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At a public hearing of the commission Thursday, regulators, lawmakers and small-business owners asked utilities to accelerate the voluntary diversity program that they said lifts up small businesses, creates jobs and supports local communities.

"We still have a long way to go," said Del. Barbara Robinson of Baltimore. "I want to encourage those who have reached their goals to reach back and help those who have not reached their goals."

Under a 2009 agreement, Maryland utilities committed to increase their purchasing of goods and services from minority businesses to 25 percent of their total contracting and agreed to report their progress annually. Participation is voluntary, and 15 of the 19 participating utilities submitted an annual report for 2015.

Four companies — the Association of Maryland Pilots, Potomac Edison, AT&T and Washington Gas Light — exceeded the goal in 2015.

Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., a subsidiary of Exelon and among the largest utilities in the state, spent $180.88 million with minority contractors, 21.75 percent of its total procurement spending, up from 17.22 percent in 2014.

Emmett T. Vaughn, the director of Exelon's Office of Diverse Business Empowerment, said Exelon and its subsidiaries are committed to further improving diversity among contractors.

Led by Vaughn, a group of utilities have revived the Utilities Forum, a group that Vaughn said will share practices and strategies about how to accelerate diverse contracting.

Ward Tucker said his Crofton-based underground utility construction and traffic control businesses are evidence that the program has helped small businesses grow and is a worthy investment for utilities.

Thanks to contracts with BGE, Pepco and a handful of other utilities, his Tucker Construction Group and Lorenzo Construction have grown from 50 employees to 275 over the past three years.

The program's benefits go beyond a boost to his businesses, Tucker said. Traffic jobs at Lorenzo don't require an advanced degree, so Tucker focuses on hiring local unemployed workers and training them to someday advance to construction jobs.

"They come home in a vest, work boots, hard hat — their families see that," Tucker said. "It's about the community, too."

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