Wal-Mart hires more lobbyists to help topple benefits bill

November 18, 2005|By ANDREW A. GREEN | ANDREW A. GREEN,SUN REPORTER

With a nation watching, Wal-Mart has ramped up its opposition to a groundbreaking bill that would force the retail giant to offer better benefits, a step that could be replicated in state houses across the nation next year.

A dozen lobbyists, nine of them hired in the past six weeks, now represent Wal-Mart in the state capital, two months before lawmakers will consider whether to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of the bill. Success for the retailer could be an important win in a nationwide battle of public relations and public policy over what responsibility the country's largest employer has to its workers.

"There are a lot of people watching the Maryland situation," said company spokesman Nate Hurst. "It started in Maryland. It was a concerted effort by organized labor there and, you know, a lot of what is driving this [nationwide] is an attack on our company there."

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states are considering bills like Maryland's. Lawmakers in a seventh state, Michigan, spoke this week with a sponsor of the Maryland bill in an effort to pursue similar legislation there.

Lawmakers in a dozen more states are considering bills that would require their states to disclose how many employees of large companies participate in Medicaid or other government health programs.

"[The] Maryland [bill] is the first of its kind, and a lot of legislators around the country are looking at the Maryland debate as a model ... to see how it might play out in their own states," said Nu Wexler, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Watch, a coalition of labor, environmental and other liberal-leaning groups.

The Maryland bill, known to supporters as the Fair Share Health Care Act, requires companies with 10,000 or more employees in the state to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on worker health care or pay the difference to the state. Wal-Mart is the only company in the state with that many employees that does not meet the 8 percent threshold.

Proponents say the measure is a crucial public policy statement about the responsibility employers have to their workers. They say that because Wal-Mart pays relatively little for its workers' health care, other businesses and citizens pay more in higher health insurance and taxes.

But opponents call the bill the first step in a move to socialize health care. They argue that increasingly smaller companies will be subjected to the rule and the required spending would climb.

The bill passed with one more vote than needed to override a veto in the state Senate and was one vote shy of that mark in the House of Delegates, though several supporters in that chamber missed the vote.

Ehrlich said yesterday that he will put tremendous effort into stopping an override. If the bill becomes law, it would make it difficult to attract businesses to the state, he said. Ehrlich was nearly successful in a similar effort last year over the veto of a medical malpractice bill.

Business groups, including the state Chamber of Commerce, have also listed sustaining Ehrlich's veto as their top priority in January's legislative session.

But the governor said it was high time that Wal-Mart brought in more lobbyists to make its case itself.

"They didn't get their side of the story out very well. They were behind the ball," Ehrlich said. "We have encouraged them to hire respected people ... to get in the ball game."

Hurst, the Wal-Mart spokesman, said the lobbyist hiring spree was the result of a flurry of questions from legislators about new health care plans the company unveiled this fall. The new plans have been so successful that an additional 100,000 people nationwide signed up for coverage this fall, he said.

"There's such a short time between now and January that we needed additional resources to be able to educate all these legislators that had good questions," Hurst said.

The new Wal-Mart lobbyists include some of the most prominent and well-paid advocates in Annapolis.

Proponents of the legislation don't lack for high-profile lobbyists, either. Former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman is working on the effort, as is Vinnie DeMarco, a lobbyist and advocate who helped enact gun control laws in the 1990s. Barry Sher, the lobbyist for Wal-Mart competitor Giant Foods, has been a public face for the effort, and organized labor groups have also played a major role.

They believe they have a powerful story to tell, too.

In an internal memorandum, published by The New York Times in April, company officials admit that the retailer's health plans are unaffordable for many employees. The memo also suggests ways to cut health costs further, such as by hiring younger, fitter employees or by requiring cashiers to be able to perform physical activity such as gathering carts.

"A lot of effort is being put in now by both sides," Hoffman said. "We have some people we've been talking to who didn't give us their votes the first time who are willing to look at the facts. I think probably everyone on the other side is trying to move some of our people."

House Speaker Michael E. Busch predicted a close vote on the override, which would be taken up as one of the first pieces of business in January. But he said he's not sure how much difference all the lobbying will make on such a hard-fought issue.

"It's very difficult for people to justify why they voted one way one time and a different way another time," Busch said. "I don't know that many people are going to change their philosophical point of view."

andy.green@baltsun.com

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