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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)

Democratic lawmakers countered that the bill was intended to make large employers pay their "fair share" of health costs. Wal-Mart says that more than three-quarters of its sales associates have health insurance but acknowledged that some of its low-wage workers are on Medicaid, the state insurance program for the poor.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) argued that the bill would "take people who should be getting health care at the workplace off the rolls."

Ehrlich's chief of staff, Chip DiPaula, said last night that lawmakers had started "marching down the road to socialized medicine.

"The governor thought it was terrible public policy, but we're done. We're over it," DiPaula said.

Supporters predicted that Maryland's success would give a lift to similar legislative initiatives elsewhere. Vincent DeMarco, who lobbied for the bill as president of the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, said he has been invited to speak to several national groups about Maryland's experience.

"This is going to sweep the nation because people have been looking for a way to expand health care access and spread the burden," DeMarco said.

Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA, a national health care advocacy group, said some initiatives that have emerged in other states are more expansive than Maryland's, affecting more than just the largest employers.

Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said he could not predict what other states would do. But Josten said Maryland's approach "completely misses the mark."

Josten said that roughly 25 million of the more than 45 million uninsured Americans work for companies with 10 or fewer employees. "This in no way gets to the root of the problem," he said.

Hurst said there are 786,000 uninsured people in Maryland, and fewer than one-half of 1 percent of them work for Wal-Mart.

The bill prompted frantic lobbying in recent weeks, with unions and health care advocates airing radio and television ads and Wal-Mart running full-page ads in major newspapers. The company also bulked up its lobbying corps in Annapolis, hiring at least 12 lobbyists, whom Pinsky derisively called the Dirty Dozen during yesterday's debate.

The Annapolis press corps was swollen with members of the national media, and immediately after the House vote, Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) was whisked outside the State House for a national television interview.

The whoops and cheers of advocates echoed in the vast hallway outside the House chamber. Union members and their lobbyists hugged lawmakers and posed for photos, giving a thumbs-up, some with tears in their eyes. "We prevailed. Yes!" said an exuberant Del. Veronica L. Turner (D-Prince George's).

Ehrlich vetoed the bill last spring after the legislative session ended.

In the interim, Wal-Mart announced an overhaul of health care options for its employees, including a plan that it said costs $23 a month for a single worker.

The Senate's vote to override Ehrlich's veto met the three-fifths requirement with one vote to spare. The only Democrats who broke with their party were three senators representing Anne Arundel County, a relatively conservative jurisdiction. All 14 of the chamber's Republicans voted against the bill.

In the House, Democrats had a harder time harnessing the votes needed. But by early yesterday, Busch said he felt certain he had reached the critical number: 85.

Lawmakers also maneuvered yesterday to override other Ehrlich vetoes, including a $1 increase in the minimum wage. The House passed the measure, and the Senate could do the same Tuesday. The Senate, meanwhile, overrode Ehrlich vetoes of bills that would allow early voting in this year's election and would seek to address voter intimidation.

Staff writers Matthew Mosk and Ann E. Marimow contributed to this report.

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