At a time when federal affirmative action programs are under fire, the Maryland General Assembly adopted legislation yesterday that will increase the amount of state business earmarked for minority-owned firms.
The bill -- a priority of Gov. Parris N. Glendening -- will raise from 10 percent to 14 percent the amount of goods and services the state must try to buy from businesses owned by blacks, women and other minorities.
Although the figure is described as a "goal" in state law, it is virtually always met.
The governor's chief lobbyist, Bonnie A. Kirkland, described yesterday's passage as a "big victory" for Mr. Glendening. He has promised to sign the legislation even though he initially sought an 18 percent goal.
"We are very pleased that the House and Senate came to an agreement as quickly as they did and reached a very reasonable compromise," Ms. Kirkland said.
"In light of the national debate on affirmative action and the tide going in the other direction, the General Assembly had the foresight to see the business development and economic benefits of this bill," she said.
A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that 57 percent of Americans favor ending affirmative action programs for government jobs, contracts and admissions to state universities. There are proposals in Congress to eliminate or trim programs now in place, and several Republican presidential candidates recently have voiced opposition to affirmative action.
The House of Delegates gave final approval to the measure after about 40 minutes of debate. The 87-48 vote broke largely along party lines, with all but three of the House's 41 Republicans opposing the bill.
Conservative lawmakers lashed out against the legislation as unjustified and potentially unconstitutional. They questioned whether opportunities for minorities have worsened enough to justify a 40 percent increase in the minority business goal.
"I share the goal of reaching a color-blind, race-blind society, but we will not do that by moving in this direction," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican. "When you say to a certain contractor, 'You may not compete,' the law is creating racial division and division based on gender."
Del. Salima Siler Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, said a state-sponsored study demonstrated that a higher goal was justified and meets constitutional requirements.
"There is something fundamentally wrong with a system where 86 percent of the contracts go to a certain percentage of the people all the time," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III, a Prince George's Democrat who supported the bill. "Are we committed to making this process work for everyone? That's the real question."
Del. John S. Morgan, a Laurel Republican, argued that the state would help minority firms more if it provided loans, helped with cash flow or made it easier to obtain bonds. The bill addresses one of those issues. It raises from $50,000 to $100,000 the minimum size of a contract for which all contractors must buy a bid or performance bond.