Md. Legislature Overrides Veto on Wal-Mart Bill

Del. Anthony G. Brown (D-Prince George's), left, and Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) during debate on the health care measure.
Del. Anthony G. Brown (D-Prince George's), left, and Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery) during debate on the health care measure. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 13, 2006

Maryland lawmakers bucked the will of the state's Republican governor and the nation's largest retailer yesterday, voting to become the first state to effectively require that Wal-Mart spend more on employee health care.

In a veto reversal that was closely watched nationally, lawmakers in the Democrat-led General Assembly voted largely along party lines for a measure that legislatures in more than 30 states are considering replicating.

"Maryland is not a shrinking violet -- no, far from it," said Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the legislation, which drew strong backing from labor unions and health care advocates. "Maryland is a leader. Let us light the torch today. Let us lead."

The Senate voted 30-17 for the bill after a filibuster attempt by Republicans. The House followed last night with an 88-50 vote that handed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) a defeat early in the legislative session on a bill he argues is an unwarranted government intrusion into business.

The bill will require private companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health benefits or make a contribution to the state's insurance program for the poor. Wal-Mart, which employs about 17,000 Marylanders, is the only known company of such size that does not meet that spending requirement.

Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst said the votes were driven by "partisan politics."

"This vote was never about health care," Hurst said. "In allowing a bad bill to become a bad law, the General Assembly took a giant step backward and placed the special interests of Washington, D.C., union leaders ahead of the well-being of the people they serve. And that's wrong."

Hurst said the company's lawyers were certain to look into questions raised by business groups about whether the bill violates federal law. The Maryland Attorney General's Office issued an opinion this week dismissing those concerns.

The legislation has resonated in Maryland and beyond in part because it is viewed as a relatively easy and inexpensive way for lawmakers to expand access to health care and because Wal-Mart, a company with a reputation for stingy benefits, is considered an easy target.

"We don't want to kill this giant. We want this giant to behave itself," said Del. Anne Healey (D-Prince George's County), the lead sponsor in the House. "We want this giant not to be a bully."

The bill drew spirited opposition from Republican legislators, who argued that supporters were trying to punish an unpopular company and help its unionized rivals. Opponents also predicted that lawmakers would gradually expand the bill to include smaller businesses.

"This is a revenge bill," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's). "This isn't about health care."

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