The Maryland legislature is considering a law that would allow "socially disadvantaged" white men to qualify for minority business preferences.

A bill passed by the Maryland House of Delegates on Thursday would give consideration to individuals based on environment, rather than just race, for small business contracts. Those would include "non-minority" men who live in economically depressed or under-developed areas.

The bill has yet to be approved by the Maryland Senate, and does not precisely outline how those who might qualify for the business assistance preferences might apply or be selected.

Under Maryland law, socially disadvantaged individuals are people who have been subject to racial, ethnic or cultural bias beyond their control.

The bill sprang out of a Board of Public Works report recommending narrowly tailoring affirmative-action programs to use race-neutral measures to achieve minority contracting goals, basing eligibility on social and economic disadvantage instead.

The board still would need to develop criteria to determine who is socially and economically disadvantaged. The debate was lengthy, surprising sponsor Barry Glassman, a Republican from Harford.

"I didn't imagine the bill would raise such furor," he said. "It just redefines socially disadvantaged by taking into account geography, lack of access to credit and educational opportunities. It makes the Minority Business Preference program more constitutional."

But several delegates thought the legislation was a step in the wrong direction. The issues and problems that create social disadvantages are what need to be addressed, said Baltimore Democrat Clarence Davies, the bill's loudest opponent.

But Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, disagreed. "It's not just race (that creates social inequity), but access to resources — to money."

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, agreed. "I know plenty of white males who have been disadvantaged," he said.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.