- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — The Democrat-controlled General Assembly yesterday overrode Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.’s veto of a bill requiring Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to pay higher medical benefits to its workers.

The override votes, which make Maryland the first state to legislate against the discount retail giant’s health care policies, drew national attention and dealt a blow to the Arkansas-based company, which is weathering legal setbacks around the country.

“We believe that everyone should have access to affordable health insurance,” Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst said. “The Senate’s vote on this legislation does nothing to accomplish this goal.”

“This vote was never about health care. This was about partisan politics in the Maryland gubernatorial race,” Mr. Hurst said. “In voting to override this veto, the Senate has taken 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.”

Earlier yesterday, the state Senate voted 30-17 to override the veto of Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican seeking re-election this year. Last night, the House of Delegates followed suit in an 88-50 vote, with one abstention.

The override revived the Fair Share Health Care Act, which Mr. Ehrlich criticized as being anti-business.

The bill requires any business with more than 10,000 workers to devote 8 percent of its payroll to employee health care. Currently, Wal-Mart, which sets aside about 4 percent of its payroll for health care, is the only employer that meets the bill’s requirements.

The AFL-CIO is leading an effort to introduce similar bills in other state legislatures around the country.

Wal-Mart is “the most powerful business in the country. They can be a big help with the health care problem we have,” Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, Charles County Democrat, said in defense of the override vote.

Delegate Gloria Lawlah, Prince George’s County Democrat, said she had “never been more proud to be a Democrat than I am tonight, to do something in the tradition of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to stand up for people who don’t have anyone to stand up for them.”

Republican leaders decried the decision as undemocratic, saying it would encourage large employers to set up shop outside Maryland.

“Anytime we impose our wisdom on business, we’ve gone down the wrong road,” said Senate Minority Leader J. Lowell Stoltzfus, Eastern Shore Republican. “This has tremendous implications across this whole country about how much government is going to get involved in business decisions.”

Delegate Michael D. Smigiel Sr., Cecil County Republican, said: “I can’t see Wal-Mart not taking this to federal court.”

And Delegate Herb McMillan, Anne Arundel County Republican, called the bill “insane,” saying that 30 percent of Wal-Mart’s employees never had health care before they went to work for the company.

“They’re part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Mr. McMillan said of Wal-Mart.

The governor’s office called the Senate vote “an embarrassment for the state of Maryland.”

“They put politics ahead of jobs and growth,” Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said.

The override adds to Wal-Mart’s woes. Last month, a Pennsylvania judge approved a class-action lawsuit accusing the company of making employees work through their breaks and after hours.

Wal-Mart, which employs more than 1.3 million workers nationwide, already has settled a similar case in Colorado and is appealing a $172 million jury award in another case in California.

Yesterday, the company’s shares fell 83 cents to $45.74 on the New York Stock Exchange. Last year, Wal-Mart shares fell 11 percent in value, according to Bloomberg News.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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