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Ehrlich Calls Bills Hostile to Business

Governor Signs Other Measures

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page B01

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) lashed out at Democratic lawmakers yesterday for passing legislation he deemed unfriendly to business as he signed the first bills of the General Assembly's 2005 session into law.

Ehrlich said he was particularly troubled by a bill that would effectively force Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health benefits or make a contribution to the state's health insurance program for the poor. The legislation sent a bad message to the business community, Ehrlich said, and will make more difficult his job of recruiting companies to Maryland.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, left, and Gov. Ehrlich lean in to talk with Senate President Miller at the ceremony. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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"This is serious stuff," Ehrlich told reporters after signing nearly 100 lower-profile bills. "We are left to deal with the repercussions of what they did. . . . Those members who voted for the bill are going to have a lot of explaining to do."

Ehrlich repeated his promise to veto the bill, which would require companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health care or make a contribution to the state Medicaid program. Wal-Mart is the only known company the bill would affect.

Supporters say the legislation is intended to ensure that large employers pay their fair share of health costs and argue that some Wal-Mart employees are receiving government-subsidized health care. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) predicted that lawmakers would override Ehrlich's promised veto when they reconvene in January.

Ehrlich said the state had suffered as a result of the national attention the legislation has generated, including ridicule last week by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

"Thirty seconds of Limbaugh did a lot of damage," Ehrlich said.

He told reporters that another bill that would raise the minimum wage in Maryland to $6.15 an hour, $1 above the federal level, is also "under consideration for veto." Through aides, Ehrlich has expressed concerns about the effect the measure would have on small businesses. He indicated yesterday that he has not made a final decision whether to sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature.

Both the "Wal-Mart bill," as it has become known in Annapolis, and the minimum wage legislation were passed during a legislative session that wrapped up Monday night. Ehrlich said that overall, he would give himself a "B" grade on pushing his agenda through the Democrat-controlled chambers.

Ehrlich said his budget proposals survived largely intact, though he said that lawmakers should have embraced a veterans tax credit and legalized slot machine gambling, as he's called for them to do for three years.

Ehrlich said that he is enthusiastic about a proposal by Miller to hold a special session on slots but that House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) would have to be willing to talk for such a session to succeed. Busch, who is opposed to the gambling expansion, has been cool to the concept of calling back lawmakers to address just that matter.

Miller said he was frustrated by lawmakers' inability to reconcile separate slots bills passed during the session by the House of Delegates and the Senate.

He said that if Ehrlich wants to be a leader on the issue, he would call lawmakers back into session "just like Harry Truman did with the do-nothing Congress."

"If he wants to be the politician, he's already won," Miller added.

Ehrlich was flanked by Miller and Busch yesterday as part of a traditional bill signing the day after the session ends. The batch of bills passed among them included no major pieces of legislation.

Ehrlich is considering vetoing several of the high-profile bills passed during the session, and most of his successful agenda items passed too late in the session to be ready for yesterday's ceremony.

Ehrlich's office has scheduled three more ceremonies before May 26, his deadline for acting on bills approved during the session.

Yesterday's affair got off to an awkward start after the three men sat down together at a desk behind microphones.

"I have nothing particularly insightful to say," Ehrlich announced. The bill signing then commenced.

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