When a forest fire is headed your way, that is not the time to be planting more trees. It's the time to protect what you have.
A forest fire of public opposition is headed toward Maryland's -- ,, and everybody else's -- affirmative action programs. Yet Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Democrats in the General Assembly are not only working to save affirmative action in its present form, they are trying to expand it. This is bad politics.
It is true that candidate Glendening campaigned on the promise to do more for minority businesses, and he owes his election to the fact that blacks responded and voted solidly for him. Would he be guilty of bad faith if he reneged?
Times have changed. When Mr. Glendening said last summer he would improve and expand the state's Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) program, no other candidate was calling for it to be cut back or ended. Even Republican Ellen Sauerbrey was for it for the time being (but expressed the view that at some point it had to be considered to have accomplished its goal and then ended).
Since then, however, the issue of governments giving preferences to minorities and women has become central to political debate. Many critics of such preferences who grumbled in private before now complain openly. Some former supporters are no longer unwavering.
Even President Clinton, whose political debt to blacks is as great as Governor Glendening's, is reviewing his options. He and some of his confidants have been sending clear signals that affirmative action, including government set-asides such as in the Maryland MBE program, is not going to continue as in the past. Even if there were the political will to continue full speed ahead, the courts have begun to question preferential treatment by government agencies.
Maryland's program has been in effect for 17 years. Its goal is to provide 10 percent of state government contracts for goods and services to "African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American and White Women" vendors. Governor Glendening and the state Senate want that raised to 18 percent. The House of Delegates proposed 12 percent. That's more realistic, if the Democrats insist on raising the stakes.
Some critics of the program would like to see the 10 percent requirement reduced to 0. That would be tragic. Despite some problems, the MBE program has been good for the state's minority communities, thus good for the state as a whole. But tragedy could occur if the existing MBE law expired in June, or if a new law were deemed by judges to be unconstitutional. The likelihood of either happening increases as the percentage of the set-aside increases.