Largess Preceded Md. Vote on Wal-Mart

By John Wagner and Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 10, 2006

Two labor unions pushing for legislation that could expand Wal-Mart's health benefits made campaign contributions to 48 members of the Maryland General Assembly in the month before the high-profile vote.

The contributions, totaling more than $36,000 in the run-up to the January vote, came to more than a quarter of the state's legislators from affiliates of the Service Employees International Union and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, according to analysis of campaign finance reports filed last month.

"They were obviously trying to get somebody's attention," Bobbie Walton, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said of the two unions, which were pitted against the retailing giant on the issue.

The House and Senate decided last month, with just a few votes to spare, to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of the bill setting a threshold for benefits provided by large employers.

Wal-Mart retained as many as a dozen Annapolis lobbyists for the fight, which drew national attention, and tried to sway public opinion through radio and newspaper ads. This week, a retailing association aligned with the company filed suit in an attempt to block the law.

But in the weeks before the override vote, Wal-Mart made only seven direct political contributions to lawmakers, one of which was returned, according to Maryland State Board of Elections records.

The final weeks before the legislature convenes are typically feverish ones for fundraising because Maryland law bans contributions during the 90-day sessions.

But donations from SEIU and UFCW, collectively, were more than seven times what the unions had given previously in the month before sessions started, dating back to 1999, the first year that contributions are recorded in a database maintained by the elections board.

Moreover, about a third of the lawmakers who received money in the weeks just before the session had not received any contributions from these union chapters before Ehrlich's veto of the bill last spring. All told, SEIU affiliates contributed $20,570 in the month before the vote, and UFCW affiliates contributed $16,050.

Combined, the contributions exceeded what the two unions gave lawmakers in the final months of the 2002 campaign, the last time state lawmakers stood for election.

"Our members have given in greater amount to our political action funds because they understand the importance of the upcoming election year, due in no small part to what they viewed as a list of unpopular vetoes made by the current governor," said Robert L. Moore, president of the SEIU chapter that serves Maryland and the District.

Aides to Ehrlich (R) suggested that the money was more evidence of the unions' role in muscling through the legislation, which requires employers with 10,000 or more workers to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits -- or make a contribution to Medicaid, the state's health program for the poor. Wal-Mart is the only known Maryland employer that does not meet that obligation.

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