Petitions aim to cut minority set-asides


Several Republican legislators have begun a petition drive to overturn a new affirmative action law that earmarks more state business for minority-owned firms.

Unable to defeat the bill in Annapolis this year, the lawmakers began gathering signatures at festivals around Maryland last weekend to bring the issue to a statewide referendum in 1996.

The new law, which Gov. Parris N. Glendening signed Tuesday, increases from 10 percent to 14 percent the amount of state business targeted for minority-owned companies. Opponents want the goal to go back to 10 percent.

The bill's passage cut against national political sentiment. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed a majority of Americans favor ending affirmative action programs for government jobs and contracts.

If the Maryland law is repealed, "the governor and the legislature would be forced to re-examine affirmative action in this state and conduct a more careful balancing test of all the affirmative action programs that we have," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican and one of the petition drive organizers.

Two other Howard Republicans -- House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman and Del. John S. Morgan -- are helping to lead the petition effort.

But getting the question onto the 1996 ballot will be a challenge.

Republicans must collect 14,333 certified signatures from registered voters by this June 1, and an additional 28,667 signatures by June 30. Because some people who sign petitions are not actually registered voters, the state election board recommends gathering 20 percent more than required.

Delegate Flanagan said volunteers have collected only about 2,000 signatures.

To make matters more difficult, the issue has split GOP legislators, and the Republican Party has decided not to get involved. "The best thing I can do for the party to keep it together is to say the party is not taking a position one way or the other," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, who chairs the state GOP.

Some who back the drive think it is an issue that will drive TC wedge between conservative and liberal Democrats. But others fear it will alienate potential party members at a time when the GOP is making gains in largely Democratic Maryland.

Christopher J. McCabe, another Howard Republican, opposed the bill but says he feels ambivalent about trying to repeal it.

"We should be involved with issues that broaden our party," Mr. McCabe said, echoing the sentiments of many Republican colleagues. By trying to repeal the bill, "there is the risk that we are perceived as trying to say to different groups that we don't want you to participate in our party."

Mr. Flanagan acknowledges that the referendum effort risks alienating some voters, but said he sees popular support for re-evaluating affirmative action.

"Yes, there is a risk that those in the minority community can get upset at what I'm saying," he said. "But I'm not saying something that isn't on a lot of people's minds."

Even if the measure goes to referendum, recent history suggests that repealing a law by popular vote in Maryland is difficult. Gun rights advocates failed to overturn the 1988 law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of certain handguns. And abortion opponents lost their battle to repeal the 1992 abortion rights law.

Governor Glendening, who championed the bill increasing the allocation for minority business, has expressed dismay at the attempt to repeal the law.

"The governor thinks it's unfortunate," said Richard Montgomery, one of Mr. Glendening's legislative lobbyists. "Minority businesses do not just hire minorities. They are an integral and really a vital part of the state's economy."

Under the current affirmative action system, state agencies generally give contracts to the lowest qualified bidder. If that is not a minority firm, the contractor must subcontract a percentage of the work to businesses owned by minorities.

If a contractor cannot find a minority subcontractor after making a good faith effort, the state can waive the requirement. But waivers are rare.

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