Democrats target Ehrlich vetoes

Republicans complain of partisanship as override effort looms


General Assembly Democrats say they will try to override a half-dozen of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s vetoes, setting the stage for a testy election-year legislative session with fights on the minimum wage, health care for Wal-Mart employees, early voting and juvenile justice reforms.

The bill requiring Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health care has become the focus of a national battle over the retailer's practices and has sparked an intense lobbying effort by both sides in Annapolis.

Legislation to allow voters to cast their ballots up to a week before Election Day could have electoral implications because many say higher turnout benefits Democrats.

The measure to increase the minimum wage by $1 an hour to $6.15 has powerful backers in the General Assembly. Also, interest in imposing new oversight on the Department of Juvenile Services has spiked since Ehrlich closed a Baltimore County detention facility without plans for a replacement.

It is less certain whether legislators will attempt overrides of other vetoes, such as one that blocked a bill allowing same-sex partners to make medical decisions for each other.

During previous administrations, when Democrats controlled the executive and legislative branches, veto overrides were rare - the last one before Ehrlich took office was in 1989. Ehrlich and GOP legislators have called previous override votes partisan slaps in the face.

But these potential overrides have broader implications for policy and politics as lawmakers from both parties are forced to take high-profile stands on philosophically divisive issues just 10 months before the next election.

"These are going to be defining votes," said Del. Kumar P. Barve, the House majority leader from Montgomery County. "It's going to be important to a lot of voters."

Republican leaders see the override attempts as showing that the Democrats are interested in partisanship over policy and are wedded to labor unions and other left-leaning groups.

"This is the legislature playing election-year politics," said Ehrlich's communications director, Paul E. Schurick. "They're trying to use veto overrides to embarrass the governor, and they're trying to pander to their liberal base, or what's left of it."

The Wal-Mart bill has gotten the most attention since the last legislative session. Ehrlich made a show of vetoing it in a town square ceremony in Somerset County, where the company had planned to build a new distribution center.

Those plans went on hold shortly after the legislature passed the bill, which requires companies with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payrolls on worker health care or pay the difference to the state to subsidize Medicaid. Wal-Mart is the only company that would be affected.

Since then, the bill has become a central scrimmage in a national fight between anti-Wal-Mart groups - largely labor unions - and the fiercely anti-union corporation. Wal-Mart foes have been touring the nation with a documentary lambasting the retailer and have attracted high-profile backers, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Wal-Mart has snagged top political guns from both parties to staff a campaign-style war room at its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters and at last count had hired a dozen lobbyists in Annapolis - nine more than it had last spring - in an effort to shoot down the bill.

Meanwhile, legislators in nearly 20 states are considering bills like Maryland's or legislation designed to expose how many Wal-Mart employees receive state-subsidized health care.

Proponents argue that the bill sets a standard for corporations' responsibilities to their employees and stops Wal-Mart from relying on state-sponsored health programs to care for its workers. But opponents say it's the first step toward socialized medicine in Maryland.

The minimum wage bill has resulted in a similar labor-business divide. Backers say the federal wage, which hasn't been increased since 1997, is inadequate to support working families. But business groups, notably the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, say deviating from the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour would put Maryland at a competitive disadvantage and would lead to broader wage inflation.

The early voting bill, one of several election-related bills Ehrlich vetoed, would allow people to cast ballots at some polling places in the week before the election. Democrats say anything that makes voting more convenient is good for the state. But the administration says that this and other voting bills would, in Schurick's words, "legalize voter fraud."

One of the juvenile justice bills would move the Office of the Independent Monitor - which has issued scathing reports about conditions in youth lockups - under the auspices of the attorney general with the goal of protecting it from political pressure.

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