Union targets senators after insurance bill dies

Union angered by death of bill

State senators who voted against insurance plan targeted in campaign

Union targets senators after insurance bill dies

Howard County

May 26, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Upset over the last-minute, two-vote death of a General Assembly bill that would have extended health insurance to thousands of Marylanders, an international union is targeting state senators in Howard and Anne Arundel counties who voted against the measure. But the effort may have backfired.

Even Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who voted for House Bill 1271, angrily denounced the Service Employees International Union campaign yesterday as "mean-spirited."

"I'm extremely upset," he said. "This particular union is burning a lot of bridges with progressive Democrats throughout the state," and the union "is not going to have a seat at the table."

Senators were focused on preserving health care in the face of a huge state budget deficit, Miller said, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was prepared to veto the bill, noting an 11 percent annual increase in state Medicaid costs.

Through a group called Maryland For Health Care, the union sent a direct-mail appeal of more than 40,000 brochures to constituents of Sens. Edward J. Kasemeyer and Sandra B. Schrader of Howard County and Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr. from Anne Arundel. The brochures urged voters to sign, detach and mail post cards bearing a blunt message.

"I'm a health care voter. I believe in giving all Maryland residents quality affordable health care, and if you won't vote for solutions to our health care crisis, I will find someone who will," the post card said.

The union-coordinated campaign also sent e-mail to constituents of other senators, bought local newspaper ads and, in one case, rented a Prince George's County billboard to make its point, according to Ellen Golombek, national campaign director for Americans for Health Care, the union-sponsored group working the issue nationally from Washington.

She said a variety of factors determined which senators were targeted for mailings, but they appeared to be aimed at moderate Democrats and Republicans who might support expanded health insurance.

The bill would have removed a 2 percent tax exemption from health insurance companies and used the revenue, plus federal matching funds, to help insure 75,000 Maryland families earning up to $37,700 for a family of four.

The House-sponsored bill would have eventually lowered premiums, argued Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat and co-sponsor, by insuring people who would otherwise show up for more expensive emergency room care. "This was a modest step toward covering more people," she said.

But senators targeted by the mailings said they would not be influenced.

"I find the tactic baffling and I don't think in my case it's going to have the desired effect," said Kasemeyer, a Democrat who represents parts of Columbia, Elkridge and Catonsville. "Do they think a Republican is more likely to vote for it than me?" he asked, noting that Republicans opposed the bill, which failed in the General Assembly's final hours on a 22-24 vote.

Schrader, a Republican, was the only senator not to vote on the bill that chaotic last night, she said, because she was busy trying to coordinate other legislation. She added that she would have voted "no."

"Nobody called to discuss this," Schrader said. "I'm not quite sure what this group is.

"If you want to attack me you have to be willing to discuss this issue with me," she said.

Prince George's Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Budget and Tax Committee, was angry after hearing about a billboard attacking him in his district.

He said no one spoke to him before the billboard went up.

"I have a $22 billion budget," he said. "For one bill to be targeted - this has never happened before. ... I guess it's a means of intimidation."

Union organizers "were incredibly disappointed at the vote that happened in the state Senate. We've been hearing from constituents throughout the state," Golombek said.

The union is aware of the risk of angering senators, she said, but, "we believe that these senators will be hearing from their constituents. They will come back to the table and talk to us."

The critical factor for senators, she said, is "how accountable they think they are to their constituents."

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