- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

Shortly after the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes Jan. 11, the first order of business for Democrats who dominate the legislature will be overriding Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s vetoes of bills that would increase the minimum wage and impose a special tax on Wal-Mart if it fails to spend a state-dictated percentage of its payroll on health coverage for its employees.

The legislation results from a nationwide campaign by the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers and their political allies to unionize Wal-Mart employees (and to depict Wal-Mart as an evil union-buster for trying to persuade its employees not to join unions). In Maryland, Democrats led by House of Delegates Speaker Michael Busch and Senate President Mike Miller joined forces to ram through the General Assembly legislation that would force businesses with 10,000 or more employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health insurance for those employees, or to pay higher taxes to fund Medicaid. Wal-Mart is the only company in the state that would be affected by the legislation.

Perhaps no region of the state would be more damaged by the Wal-Mart bill than Somerset County, an economically troubled area on the lower Eastern Shore, where Wal-Mart may decide to build a new distribution center. The center would bring 800 jobs to Somerset, which has an employment rate more than 1 percentage point above the statewide 3.8 percent rate . (Aside from the Eastern Correctional Institution, a state prison, the Wal-Mart facility would be the largest employer in the county.)

But the General Assembly’s vote has put the Wal-Mart distribution center in jeopardy, and the company is leaving open the possibility of locating the center in a neighboring state like Delaware if the bill becomes law. That’s why Mr. Ehrlich, in announcing his veto in May, made a point of traveling to Somerset County to denounce the legislation before an audience of legislators and state and local economic-development officials.

In fact, the Wal-Mart bill is insidious on several levels. Health care is but one kind of benefit employers offer their employees, and the amount of money available for employee benefits is finite. If the government requires that an employer spend more money for one benefit, in this case health care, that means that less is available for other benefits — ranging from salary and merit pay to vacation and life insurance. Also, by taxing employers to pay for health insurance, the bill seeks to prop up a health-care model (based on third-party payments) that is increasingly outmoded; it would appear to discriminate against employers who offer high-deductible coverage and alternatives like medical savings accounts, which lower expenses. Another troubling aspect of the Wal-Mart bill has been the role of Giant Food (which spends 22 percent of its payroll on health care) in lobbying in favor of a tax increase which would damage a leading competitor.

The governor will also face a difficult fight in order to prevent Democratic lawmakers from mustering the three-fifths votes they will need in both chambers in order to override his veto of legislation increasing the minimum wage by $1 an hour, to $6.15 — despite the law’s record as a destroyer of entry-level job opportunities for minorities and the poor.

In addition to the above-mentioned bills, we urge Mr. Ehrlich to resist any effort to override his vetoes of several other seriously flawed measures passed by the legislature last year. For example, there is Senate Bill 478, requiring local election boards to establish early voting polling places starting more than a week before Election Day; and House Bill 622, permitting absentee voting on demand. The governor notes the lack of anti-fraud safeguards in both bills.

In vetoing HB 443, a bill permitting Montgomery County to install speed cameras on some roads, Mr. Ehrlich raises serious questions as to whether the cameras (and the risk of $40 fines for violators) actually improve traffic safety — or would function as a form of harassment for motorists who attempt to travel with the actual flow of traffic along corridors like Veirs Mill Road or Connecticut Avenue.

The governor vetoed House Bill 1298, which would grant “domestic partners”exemption from transfer taxes, as if they were husband and wife. Another discordant note is Senate Bill 796, which would treat “life partners” like husband and wife for purposes of making medical decisions for an incapacitated person. Mr. Ehrlich’s veto of both bills deserves to be sustained, and his supporters — in the last election as well as those in the current race — are right to be wary of any effort to cut a deal that could undermine traditional marriage.

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