House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. told African-American legislators yesterday that he would oppose any effort to water down Gov. Parris N. Glendening's legislation increasing the state's goal for minority business contracting to 25 percent.
Amid rumors that various interests groups were trying to dilute the bill, the speaker assured the Legislative Black Caucus that he has confidence the bill will emerge from committee "in its total substance."
The speaker's assurances came amid rumors that representatives of state universities were working behind the governor's back to cut the 25-percent goal. A leading African-American legislator said some House members have scheduled a meeting Monday with the university system's chancellor and Board of Regents chairman to voice their concerns.
A university official said the system supported the goal.
The effort to raise the minority business enterprise goal is one of the top items on Glendening's 2001 agenda. The 25-percent goal, based on a state-commissioned study of the availability of MBE firms for state contracts, is being strongly backed by caucuses representing black and women legislators.
The governor's bill could be politically volatile for some lawmakers. Moderate to conservative white Democrats from the Baltimore suburbs are potential swing voters on both the House and Senate committees considering the legislation, and they have been hearing objections from contractors groups that oppose the 25 percent goal.
Taylor told the lawmakers he will ask the conservative chairman of the Commerce and Government Matters Committee to move quickly on the bill.
"I will press the fact that the MBE bill needs to be voted in the next week," Taylor said.
It was by no means clear that the powerful speaker will get his way on the issue. Chairman John F. Wood Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat, said it might take several weeks to complete work on the bill. And while he said he expects the committee to approve a bill, he expressed reservations about raising the current 14 percent goal as high as 25 percent.
Wood said he's been hearing from many companies that they're having trouble finding minority subcontractors to meet the current goal.
"We have a problem finding minorities" in Southern Maryland, he said.
Some House members say they expect an attempt to amend the legislation to set a lesser goal when the committee works on the bill next week.
"We all know that there are forces out there that don't like the numbers," Taylor said. The Cumberland Democrat said any efforts to change the governor's goals "don't have my support."
For more than a week, rumors have been circulating that among those forces are lobbyists for state universities, reportedly telling sympathetic lawmakers that they would have a hard time complying with the 25-percent goal.
Wood said that while no university lobbyists have contacted him directly, "I've just heard it through the grapevine that they have problems."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he and other House members have scheduled a meeting with University System of Maryland Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg and Board of Regents Chairman Nathan A. Chapman Jr.
He said the lawmakers would voice concerns that "they're trying to undermine the governor's minority enterprise bill. I think they've been dealing in a very clandestine way and we're trying to bring it out into the open," the Baltimore Democrat said.
Francis Canavan, the system's associate vice chancellor for communications, said he hadn't heard of any university lobbying against the governor's bill.
"The system supports the legislation - unequivocally," he said.
Chapman said that while the Board of Regents hasn't taken a formal position on the legislation, he personally supports the 25 percent goal.
Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill said he had not heard of any university objections to the 25 percent goal.
He said the goal, which he emphasized was not a set-aside or a quota, was ambitious and that the governor does not necessarily expect every agency to achieve it.
"We expect everybody to make a serious effort to do the right thing," he said.
Rawlings said committee approval of the bill's key provisions - the 25 percent overall goal and targets of 10 percent for women and 7 percent for blacks - will not come easily. But he predicted the speaker, who appointed Wood, will get his way.
"It's a good old boys' committee, and the speaker is a good old boy," Rawlings said.