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Better affirmative action Not quotas: Baltimore has a new program that may do more to help minority businesses.


CITIES SUCH as Baltimore with affirmative action programs that guarantee African-American and woman-owned companies a share of city business know such plans are endangered. The U.S. Supreme Court in its last term took away a portion of the federal government's power to use affirmative action programs. And several Republican presidential contenders plan to make affirmative action a whipping boy. Given this mood, either Congress or the Supreme Court could defuse Baltimore's MBE/WBE program. Coincidentally, signs indicate the program has reached its zenith and won't grow.

In 1990, the city awarded $16.6 million in contracts to 81 minority businesses; by 1994 those figures had dropped to $15.6 million in contracts to 73 businesses. In 1990, 22 woman-headed businesses received $5.4 million in city contracts; compared to only 15 such businesses with $6.7 million in city contracts in 1994. The figures for minority and woman subcontractors also dipped slightly. But during roughly the same period, a number of private projects included minority and woman subcontractors in exchange for some type of city assistance.

Some cities are already employing affirmative action alternatives. Birmingham, Ala., in settling a reverse discrimination suit, began a program nearly five years ago that disdains set-asides. Instead of guaranteeing a percentage of public works projects, Birmingham created a quasi-public authority that nurtures minority businesses and encourages mentor relationships between black and white companies.

Baltimore doesn't plan to abandon its MBE/WBE program, which sets goals of 20 percent minority and 3 percent female participation on most city-financed projects. But in April it began a new program with more long-term promise. The Baltimore Minority Business Initiative program includes a 10-week course at Coppin State College that teaches business management skills ranging from bidding to marketing. Follow-up counseling is offered.

The BMBI program is operating almost as a pilot project right now, with money donated to the city by Wheelabrator Inc. BMBI appears to be a better approach to ensure that Baltimore has minority and woman-owned businesses that can compete for public contracts without guarantees or quotas.

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