The Ehrlich administration reached out to Maryland's growing Hispanic community Thursday, promising a group of Hispanic business leaders that their concerns will be heard at the highest levels of state government.

Aides to Gov. Robert Ehrlich (search) said Hispanics will be considered for high-level positions in the administration. The administration also promised that the Governor's Commission on Hispanic Affairs (search) will be reconstituted so that it will be an effective voice for the community.

"I think we have a receptive ear in the governor," said Jorge Ribas, owner of a Montgomery County consulting company and president of the Maryland Hispanic Republican Caucus.

Ehrlich did not attend the meeting, but several top aides did.

Ribas, who has been critical of the lack of Hispanic appointees by Ehrlich as well as by previous Democratic governors, said he believes the governor "has a greater awareness of the importance of the Hispanic community."

"The bottom line is we are achieving economic power. We need to achieve political power," he said.

The Commission on Hispanic Affairs was created in the 1970s by former Gov. Marvin Mandel (search), but several people attending the meeting said it has not been active or effective.

"This is now a viable commission. In the past it has not been," said Hector Torres, appointed by Ehrlich as the new executive director of the commission. The governor also created a position of outreach coordinator for the commission.

Torres said the major role of the commission will be "providing outreach to community organizations, to faith-based organizations."

It will also be an advocate to the governor and the legislature on issues of importance to the Hispanic community, Torres said.

Among those attending the meeting in the Governor's Reception Room in the State House was Luis Queral, a member of the commission when it was created by Mandel, who said it has not been an effective advocate for Hispanics.

"People need to know the commission exists," he said.

While Ehrlich aides did not make any specific promises on appointments, Paul Schurick, the governor's communications director, said before the meeting that there likely will be an announcement soon of the appointment of a Hispanic "to a very senior position in the administration."

Hispanics are a growing political force that is being actively courted nationally by the Democratic and Republican parties. The number of Hispanics in Maryland is still relatively small - 228,000 according to the 2002 Census - but that was an increase of 82 percent in just 10 years.

As the numbers increase, Hispanics also are stepping up political pressure on Democratic and Republican state officials.

The caucus headed by Ribas is a new organization formed to try to attract Hispanic voters, who tend to support Democrats, to the Republican fold.

Ribas' job was not made easier by Ehrlich's decision to veto a bill passed by the legislature last April that would have allowed some illegal immigrants who earn a high school diploma after attending schools in Maryland at least three years to pay in-state tuition at Maryland colleges.

The governor said it was a difficult decision, but that he would be willing to work with sponsors to try to develop a bill he could support.

"Personally, we were disappointed. On the other hand, we are encouraged that the governor left the door open for next year," Ribas said in an interview prior to Thursday's meeting.

The veto was criticized by many Hispanic leaders, who said it could hurt GOP efforts to lure Latino voters away from the Democratic Party.

"I think any time a Republican takes such a public view in opposition to the Latino community, it hurts the Republican Party overall," said Kimberley Propeack, a lawyer with the Maryland Latino Coalition for Justice (search).