- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic leaders said yesterday they are preparing to challenge Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. from the start of the upcoming General Assembly, a 90-day session expected to have partisan clashes and election-year posturing.

House Majority Whip Anthony G. Brown said he is already lining up votes to override Mr. Ehrlich’s veto of a bill requiring large businesses to pay employee health insurance.

If the assembly’s Democratic majority overrides the veto by Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, and the so-called Wal-Mart bill is enacted, the businesses could close and move hundreds of jobs elsewhere.

“The House leadership is considering the bill one of the top priorities, if not the top priority,” said Mr. Brown, a Prince George’s Democrat who is also the running mate of gubernatorial candidate Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley.

The legislation is just one of several issue that continues to divide the parties. The governor’s plan to revamp the state’s juvenile-justice system and his upcoming package of health care legislation are also expected to create political wrangling.

Mr. Brown said he was “pretty confident” the General Assembly leadership will secure the requisite 85 House votes to override the Wal-Mart veto when the session convenes Jan. 12.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, a Baltimore County Republican and the minority whip, expects the veto also to be overridden in the Senate, despite “having every Republican supporting the governor.”

Supporters say the bill will protect employees of large corporations.

The Ehrlich administration and other opponents characterize it as a new business tax and say the job-depleted Eastern Shore would likely suffer first because the bill may persuade Wal-Mart to cancel plans to open a distribution center there.

“It is very telling that the Maryland legislature’s first order of business is to overturn a veto to increase taxes,” Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell said yesterday.

He also said the move would be the “first step toward government-run health care.”

The bill, officially titled the Fair Share Health Care Fund Act, requires businesses with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health insurance.

A business could also choose to contribute an equivalent amount to the state Medicaid fund. Companies that do not meet the requirement would be subject to a $250,000 fine.

Right now, Wal-Mart is the only business in the state that meets the criteria, though opponents of the legislation say it would eventually be applied to smaller businesses.

The state’s other large companies, such as Northrop Grumman, already provide adequate health insurance benefits to comply with the law.

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