Wal-Mart Girds for Battle on Md. Bill

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 17, 2005

Preparing for a showdown with organized labor in the Maryland legislature, Wal-Mart has deployed at least a dozen Annapolis lobbyists and is making strong overtures to black lawmakers, including a $10,000 donation to help them pay for a recent conference.

The retail giant hopes to derail legislation that would effectively force the company to boost spending on employee health benefits.

"They've hired the largest cadre of lobbyists in recent history in Annapolis to try to influence this legislation," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel). "It really comes down to whether the legislature is going to succumb to the money and the special interests."

For Wal-Mart, the battle in Maryland represents an opportunity not only to stamp out legislation the retailer considers "really just an attack on the company" but also to curb a trend toward state involvement in its business. After years of fighting -- and often winning -- at the local level, Wal-Mart now faces battles in several state legislatures following Maryland's lead.

Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst said that the donation to the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland was part of the company's continuing community outreach and that the lobbying effort was designed to inform lawmakers about the bill.

"There are several legislators out there who have requested that we continue to educate them," Hurst said.

The General Assembly passed the landmark bill in April, but it was vetoed by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), who called the measure an unwarranted intrusion by government. Lawmakers will seek to override his veto in January.

Wal-Mart is the only known business that would be affected by the bill, which would require companies with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on health benefits or contribute to the state's health insurance program for the poor.

The clash has coincided with a national public relations push by Wal-Mart, which has tapped former presidential advisers to counter its reputation as a low-wage employer with benefits so stingy that some workers rely on public assistance. The company recently announced an expansion of health insurance options for employees, more than 15,000 of whom work in Maryland.

The stakes in coming weeks are particularly high because support for the bill in April was very close in both chambers to the three-fifths majority needed to override the governor's veto. The Senate was one vote above that threshold, and the House was one short of it. Several delegates who back the bill missed the vote.

State Ethics Commission records showed Wal-Mart retaining 12 lobbyists as of last month, nine of whom registered in October. Among the new recruits were Joseph A. Schwartz III and J. William Pitcher, both among the 10 highest-paid lobbyists in Annapolis last year, receiving more than $500,000 each from clients.

Other lobbyists registered to represent the company included Pamela Metz Kasemeyer, the wife of a state senator who voted for the bill; a father-and-son team, George N. Manis and Nicholas G. Manis, well known at the State House; and Frank D. Boston III, an African American who represented Wal-Mart during the past session.

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