Eyes across the nation will be on Annapolis this week as Maryland lawmakers determine the fate of a bill that would force Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health care.
Both the retailing giant and national labor unions have been airing radio ads on the issue. Legislatures in 30 other states are considering following Maryland's lead. And John Edwards, the Democrats' 2004 vice presidential nominee, offered words of encouragement for bill supporters during an appearance last week at a fundraiser in the state.
The outcome, however, will ultimately be decided by a few members of the House of Delegates who are being heavily lobbied by both sides.
"I'm feeling a little bruised," said Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert), one of those who have heard from a parade of health care activists and labor leaders supporting the bill and from Wal-Mart lobbyists and big-business representatives opposing it.
At issue is whether to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s spring veto of the bill, which requires three-fifths votes from both chambers.
The Senate met that threshold when it passed the legislation last year and is expected to override Ehrlich (R) on Thursday, the day after the General Assembly's 90-day session opens.
The real battle is shaping up in the House, which fell one vote short of a veto-proof margin last spring, although a few delegates sympathetic to the bill were absent. Bill supporters say they are cautiously optimistic that they will have enough support to prevail in a vote expected Friday. "But I won't be certain until we get everyone down here," House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said. "It will be very close."
More money for heath care
The legislation would require private companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of payroll on employee health benefits or make a contribution to the state's insurance program for the poor. Wal-Mart is the only known employer that does not meet that requirement.
The legislation has resonated in Maryland and beyond in part because it is a relatively easy 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. Democrats are also seeking to appeal to working-class families, a key segment of the electorate for the party.
Labor unions raised the stakes yesterday, with the chapter of the AFL-CIO that operates in Maryland and the District announcing that it will not support the reelection of any lawmaker who does not vote to override Ehrlich's veto. "The failure to stand with us means we will not be standing with you in the elections of 2006," said Fred D. Mason, the group's president.
And at competing news conferences yesterday, both sides claimed the backing of small businesses.
Only a first step?
Maryland's chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, which bills itself as the state's largest small-business organization, presented several business owners who expressed fears that the so-called Wal-Mart bill is only a first step.
If it becomes law, they argued, the legislature almost certainly will expand the number of businesses to which it applies and increase the required spending on health care.
"We don't want the government getting involved, telling Wal-Mart what to do, and we don't want the government getting involved, telling us what to do," said Walt Clocker of Angel's Food Market, a family-owned business in Pasadena.
That view was countered at an event hosted by the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, an advocacy group that brought out several small-business leaders who favor the bill, including two appearing in a radio ad this week.
In the ad, Mark Derbyshire, the owner of a Harford County moving company, and Lisa Jackson, president of the Baltimore Minority Contractors Group, argue that when large companies do not spend their "fair share" on health care, the cost is picked up by taxpayers, including small businesses.
Wal-Mart has acknowledged that some of its employees and their families who do not qualify for health benefits are enrolled in Medicaid, the state program for the poor.
Wal-Mart Watch, a national, union-funded group that monitors Wal-Mart's business practices, released yesterday a list of 141 small businesses, primarily in competitive legislative districts in Maryland, that it said support an override.
Also yesterday, the attorney general's office, in a four-page letter to legislative leaders, dismissed the contention of a business group that the legislation violates federal law.
For lawmakers, all the competing arguments can be dizzying.
Health care advocates have presented Kullen with a poll suggesting that a significant majority of her district's constituents support the bill.
Kullen said last week that she is "certainly still listening to the debate" but is likely to stand by her vote in favor of the legislation. "I don't see this as anything other than trying to get Wal-Mart to do the right thing," she said.
Wal-Mart has bulked up its lobbying corps considerably, retaining at least a dozen Annapolis lobbyists, nine of whom have been hired since October. They are making some headway.
Del. Clarence Davis (D-Baltimore) voted for the bill last year. But given more time to think about it, "it did not seem right that we were targeting one particular company," he said.
Davis said he decided to switch sides after Wal-Mart representatives appeared before a meeting of the Black Legislative Caucus last year and detailed improvements in employee health benefits. "It appeared to me that Wal-Mart had gotten the message, and they were beginning to capitulate," Davis said.
Ehrlich urged lawmakers last week to capitulate.
"Unfortunately, Maryland's anti-jobs, anti-consumer lawmakers are putting our economic growth at risk and setting a dangerous precedent for the nation," he said.