Politicians, listen up -- the public has spoken

July 16, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

A Washington Post survey of Marylanders who said they were "absolutely certain" to vote this November asked: "Do you support or oppose the state legislature's decision to force Wal-Mart to spend more on employee health benefits?" Among the 902 randomly selected voters in the June survey, 21 percent said they opposed the law, 2 percent had no opinion and 77 percent said they supported it.

Seventy-seven percent.

It seems almost impossible to get 77 percent of any group to agree on anything controversial (although that was the percentage of Americans who, in a Fox News poll last fall, agreed that global warming is a real phenomenon and, in a CNN poll in April, favored allowing illegal immigrants who've been in the United States for five years to apply for citizenship.)

Whatever you're measuring, 77 percent is impressive. In the Wal-Mart matter, that's nearly eight out of 10 Marylanders saying: "You want to do business on this scale in our state, fine. Pay your fair share. We're all paying for people who don't have health insurance."

The General Assembly passed the Wal-Mart bill, the Republican governor vetoed it, and the Assembly upheld it with an override. Conservatives far and wide decried the measure as appallingly anti-business. The Post and The Sun editorialized against it. A retailers group has gone to federal court to challenge it.

The law forces employers with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of payroll on health care or contribute the difference to the state Medicaid fund. It's called the Wal-Mart bill because that mega-chain is the only Maryland employer affected by it. (Three other employers each have at least 10,000 workers and already pay their share or more.)

The Wal-Mart poll results are interesting in light of the howling - in conservative commentary and on reputedly liberal editorial pages - against the measure. Some made it sound as if Maryland was ridiculously out of step with national sentiment and common sense.

It turns out Maryland might be in the vanguard of a new progressive movement, and maybe we should be proud of ourselves.

According to Vinnie DeMarco, leader of the grass-roots effort behind the Wal-Mart law, public sentiment before the measure reached the Maryland legislature was almost exactly as it is now. A Gonzales poll in January 2005 pinned support among Marylanders at 78 percent.

Now DeMarco's organization, the Maryland Citizens' Health Initiative, is tackling another aspect of coverage for the uninsured. With the support of a coalition of organizations across the state, DeMarco's group wants to raise the state cigarette tax another buck - to $2 a pack - to discourage teenage smoking and fund health insurance for up to 50,000 poor Marylanders.

An April opinion survey, conducted by OpinionWorks of Annapolis, showed 66 percent of likely voters supporting the tax increase, and 55 percent of them saying they "strongly" support the measure. (It's not 77 percent, but 66 is a big barn dance of support.)

DeMarco says the tax would be good for another $155 million per year in revenue, and this is how his coalition wants the bulk of the money spent:

$100 million to expand Medicaid coverage to adults whose annual earnings fall below the federal poverty line (less than $16,600 for a family of four), restore health services for legal immigrant children and pregnant women, eliminate Medicaid deficits and cover future increases in Medicaid costs.

$15 million for a pilot program to match tax credits for businesses that enroll their employers in the state's small-group benefit plans.

$14 million to discourage smoking, particularly among teenagers.

$10 million for special care through community health centers.

While the cigarette tax would be a diminishing revenue source - the higher you raise the tax, the fewer people will buy tobacco products - DeMarco says his organization projects plenty of money to fund these programs through 2012. Over the long haul, as smoking decreases statewide, so will the medical costs associated with it, and Maryland's uninsured will be less of a burden for businesses and taxpayers.

Neither Maryland's present governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., nor his chief challenger, Martin O'Malley, supports this idea.

Unlike other Republican governors (George Pataki in New York, Mitch Daniels in Indiana), Ehrlich is flat-out opposed to a new cigarette tax. Tomorrow, according to Ehrlich's spokesman Henry Fawell, the governor will announce a health-care initiative of his own.

O'Malley's campaign spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, said the mayor "is not inclined to support the [cigarette] tax until other cost-savings are maximized" through small-business purchasing pools and other remedies.

Given the keen ability of DeMarco's organization to study complex issues and come up with progressive solutions - there's more to Healthy Maryland than the cigarette tax - all candidates should be looking in this direction. "People need to ask candidates whose side they're on," says DeMarco. "Are they on the side of the tobacco companies or children and the uninsured?"

Tomorrow, DeMarco's group will send all candidates a request for an endorsement of the initiative, asking for a response by Aug. 25. Healthy Maryland is not the total answer to the health insurance mess, but it certainly provides a piece of one. And it gives progressive candidates another way to distinguish themselves among Maryland voters.

Maryland voters are obviously looking for that quality in a candidate.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

To hear Dan Rodricks on the radio, tune in to WBAL (1090 AM) from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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