Maryland Senate votes for Wal-Mart reform
Published: Friday, January 13, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2006 at 11:29 p.m.
The Maryland Senate on Thursday bucked the will of the state's Republican governor and the nation's largest retailer, voting to require Wal-Mart effectively to spend more on employee health care.
In a vote that was closely watched nationally, the Democratic-led chamber overrode Gov. Robert Ehrlich's veto by 30-17, following an unsuccessful filibuster attempt by Republicans. Legislatures in more than 30 states are now considering replicating the measure.
"Maryland is not a shrinking violet. No, far from it," said Sen. Gloria Lawlah, D-Prince George's, the lead sponsor of legislation that has drawn strong backing from labor unions and health care advocates. "Maryland is a leader. Let us light the torch today. Let us lead."
The Democrat-led House was expected to follow suit tonight, handing Ehrlich a defeat early in the legislative session on a bill he argues is an unwarranted government intrusion into business.
The bill 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 spending requirement.
The bill drew spirited opposition from Republicans on the Senate floor, who argued that supporters were trying to unfairly punish an unpopular company and 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."
Democratic lawmakers countered that the bill was intended to make large employers pay their "fair share" of health costs. Wal-Mart has acknowledged that some of its low-wage workers are on Medicaid, the state insurance program for the poor.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, argued that the bill would "take people who should be getting health care at the workplace off the rolls."
The legislation has resonated in Maryland and beyond in part because it is 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. Democrats are also seeking to appeal to working-class families, a key segment of the electorate for the party.
The bill prompted frantic lobbying on both sides 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 top flight lobbyists, whom Pinsky derisively referred to as the "Dirty Dozen" during Thursday's debate.
The three Democratic senators representing Anne Arundel County - Sens. John Astle, James DeGrange and Philip Jimeno - were the only Democrats to vote to sustain Ehrlich's veto. All 14 of the chamber's Republicans voted against the bill.
The action drew no immediate comment from Wal-Mart.
Bob Moore, president of the chapter of the Service Employees International Union operating in Maryland and the District of Columbia, offered praise.
"Today the senators of Maryland have taken a monumental stand for working people in this state and furthermore, across this country," said Moore, whose union has been among those pushing for the bill.
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