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Md. Passes Rules on Wal-Mart Insurance

"Many of our competitors, let's face it, would like to continue to be rewarded for operating in ways that are less efficient," Scott said, adding that criticism of the company's wages and benefits from grocery workers' unions neglects to account for the fact that its low prices help working families.

Wal-Mart's image problems have had no measurable impact on consumers' willingness to shop at the chain, analysts said. Sales grew 11 percent last year and Wal-Mart estimates that 90 percent of Americans, or 270 million people, shopped at one of the company divisions in 2004.

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Still, critics abound. At least two dozen Web sites catalogue the chain's missteps. One, the Wal-Mart Litigation Project, describes itself as a guide for lawyers preparing to sue the company. At another site, "Wal-Mart Fact Checker" rebuts company advertisements line by line.

And last week, 21 Democratic members of the U.S. House joined the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in calling on ABC News to drop Wal-Mart as a sponsor of a "Good Morning America" series called "Only in America." ABC said it will stick with Wal-Mart.

"There is no perceived risk in attacking Wal-Mart anymore," said Eric Dezenhall, president of Dezenhall Resources in Washington and a veteran corporate crisis expert. "They have gone from being a business success story to being a cultural villain."

In Maryland, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) is expected to lend his support to the retailer and veto the measure, should the House and Senate reconcile small differences in the bill.

"I don't think this is a bill the governor is inclined to support," Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver said yesterday, citing the governor's unabashed pro-business posture. Late last year, Wal-Mart hosted an Annapolis fundraiser for Ehrlich, which DeLeaver said is irrelevant to his thinking.

The margin of yesterday's Senate vote would be sufficient to override a veto. The House vote last month fell one vote short of a veto-proof majority, but several members were absent. Advocates predicted that they would have enough support to outflank the governor.

"This bill is going to become law with or without Bob Ehrlich," said Vincent DeMarco of Maryland Health Care for All, a coalition of labor, religious and community groups that pushed for passage of the bill.

DeMarco said the bill did not aim solely at Wal-Mart. Johns Hopkins University, Giant Food and defense contractor Northop Grumman Corp. have enough employees to fall under the bill's requirements. But all meet the 8 percent threshold for for-profit employers or the 6 percent mandated for nonprofits.

It was unclear yesterday exactly how far Wal-Mart is from the 8 percent mark.

Lawmakers said the company told them a year ago that it spent about 5 percent of its payroll on health benefits, which would mean an investment of roughly $8 million. Hurst, the company spokesman, said yesterday that the figure is 7 to 8 percent.

Hurst said about 80 percent of Wal-Mart workers in Maryland are eligible for benefits. Of those, he said, more than 52 percent have enrolled in health care options the company provides.

Middleton, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, said he hoped that, faced with the choice, Wal-Mart would spend the money on its own employees rather than contribute to the state Medicaid program.

"I think they would be crazy not to," he said. "This is an incentive to invest in their health care."

Barbaro reported from Rogers, Ark.

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