Bad for business? The short answer: Ha!

April 23, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Somebody ought to point out - OK, I'll do it, but just this once - that, based on what a certain Mr. Scott said at a news conference in Bentonville, Ark., the other day, it's probably safe to conclude that there was more ha-ha than brou in the brouhaha over Maryland's Wal-Mart bill. The state's economy might not come to a grinding halt, after all, and the Lord hath spared us a plague upon the land. Princess Anne just might get those $12-an-hour jobs.

Ha!

You remember the Wal-Mart bill. Some decried it as commerce-stifling legislation from hell. Others thought it a victory for what could eventually be millions of uninsured workers in the United States.

The Fair Share Health Act required companies with 10,000 or more workers in Maryland to spend 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits or pay the difference to the state so we can cover them. It put Maryland on the map of progressive efforts to reform health insurance policy and provide medical care for the working poor.

The General Assembly passed the bill.

The business-friendly Republican governor, who presides over a robust Maryland economy (43,500 new jobs since March 2005), vetoed the Wal-Mart bill because he didn't think it was ... business-friendly.

The General Assembly voted to override the business-friendly Republican governor's veto.

There was a big brouhaha. Champions of free markets couldn't believe it was actually happening. There were dire warnings that, in requiring Wal-Mart to actually provide decent medical benefits for its workers, Maryland was sending a grim message into the global economy: "Don't do business here, you fools!"

The business-friendly governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., told a group of business-friendly businessmen in Prince George's County: "I just know, when I walk into the boardroom of a business in the next 90 days, I will be asked by a CEO, `What does this mean for the business environment? Why should I bring my business to Maryland?' And I'm not going to have a good answer."

Oh, brother.

The state's economic development guy, Aris Melissaratos, still won't let go. The other day, he told The Sun that the General Assembly had treated Wal-Mart "shabbily" by requiring a company that had 2005 revenues of $315.6 billion to be a little more generous toward its employees. "It's unfortunate that the legislative bodies slammed them as hard as they did," Melissaratos said.

Oy vey.

And, of course, we were told that, because of the legislation, Wal-Mart might not build a proposed distribution center on nearly 200 acres of Eastern Shore land, near a creek in Somerset County, which seems to think any kind of growth is better than no growth, even if it means more congestion and the loss of open space and the region's rural legacy.

The construction of this sprawling Wal-Mart distribution center was held up as some kind of test of whether Maryland's new Fair Share Health Act was sufficiently anti-business to make companies change their minds about setting up shop here.

"Right now, we are weighing our options," Wal-Mart spokesman Nate Hurst told The Sun in January, after the veto override. "This bill certainly sent a message to the business community, and companies like ours are taking a step back and wondering how business-friendly Maryland is."

But did you hear what the big man in Bentonville, Ark., said last week?

H. Lee Scott, the president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart, called Fair Share "ridiculous." However, he said it wouldn't deter the company from expanding in this state or anywhere else.

Ha!

Whaddaya know about that?

They're coming here anyway.

Excuse me, but the anti-business argument has been used so many times over the years that I have a tendency to yawn - or exclaim, "Ha!" - when I hear it. It's almost always overstated, and at the least myopic.

The anti-business argument has been raised, like a coin-encrusted broadsword, in opposition to regulations for the preservation of the environment, the smart use of land, the welfare of the working class, on-the-job safety and the protection of the consumer.

Industries threaten to pull jobs out of the state when faced with new laws or standards they don't like, or tax breaks they can't get.

We have a steady chorus of whiners who call Maryland anti-business despite our status as the fourth-wealthiest state in the nation, with a brisk job-creation history and an unemployment rate (3.4 percent last month) significantly lower than the nation's.

A couple of years ago, we heard the anti-business argument when CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield wanted to go from nonprofit to for-profit and sell out to a California insurance company in a billion-dollar-plus deal. There was a big brouhaha. The "anti-business" General Assembly defeated that proposal.

What happened? Since then, CareFirst has remained a nonprofit and, in keeping with its mission, it shaved its profits by a third last year in an effort to make health insurance as affordable as possible.

Ha!

These days, we're in the midst of another brouhaha, this one over the cost of electricity for more than a million Maryland consumers. You hear the anti-business rap used against anyone who knocks Constellation Energy for its negotiations toward an $11.4 billion merger with Florida's FPL Group. They say that if the state tries to block the merger - if it falls through and Constellation CEO Mayo Shattuck doesn't make millions - it will be bad for the business climate in Maryland, and even harm consumers.

Ha!

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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