- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Black lawmakers yesterday vowed to extend a minority contract set-aside program to 2012 after Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer this week questioned how much longer the program should last.

“Our future has to be protected,” said Rudolph C. Cane, Dorchester County Democrat and chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “We want to make sure we protect the rights of everyone.”

Mr. Cane said the caucus’ move to extend the Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) Program “is a serious message being sent to the second floor,” referring to the area of the State House where Mr. Ehrlich and Mr. Schaefer mused about the program’s eventual end during Wednesday’s Board of Public Works meeting.

However, the Ehrlich administration since has said it is not considering ending the program anytime soon.

“The governor has never pondered, discussed or contemplated the end of the MBE program under his administration, despite misleading headlines,” Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said.

Miss DeLeaver said Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, chairman of the Governor’s Commission on Minority Business Reform, met with minority business contractors yesterday and Mr. Ehrlich met with nearly a dozen black caucus members Thursday.

“I think that those in the room left with a clear understanding of the governor’s position,” she said.

On Wednesday, Mr. Schaefer, a Democrat, asked: “When does M-B-E end — E-N-D? This was not to be a permanent program.”

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, said such discussions are politically dangerous, adding that “race politics is ugly.”

“So we are trying to make it real, and it needs to end, we know that,” the governor said. “But for many, many years, this was a joke on everyone, and further exacerbated racial tension because it was not real.”

During his gubernatorial campaign three years ago, Mr. Ehrlich criticized how his predecessor — Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat — had administered the MBE program. He promised to ensure that state agencies complied with the goal of 25 percent minority participation in state contracts.

On Thursday, Mr. Ehrlich said the MBE program has been improved, but he did not know how much longer the program will be needed.

The MBE program began in 1978 and is set to expire in 2006.

It has been retooled by the Ehrlich administration after an audit showed that state agencies were exaggerating their compliance in awarding minority contracts.

Minority and women own nearly 50 percent of the businesses in Maryland. Though the state must award 25 percent of its contract dollars to such owners, the audit showed state agencies were overreporting their compliance by as much as 40 percent.

According to the audit, the Governor’s Office of Minority Affairs under Mr. Glendening reported that it had awarded 19 percent of its contracting dollars to minority businesses.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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