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Please sustain Gov. Ehrlich's veto of the Wal-Mart bill

January 07, 2006

When the General Assembly considers Governor Ehrlich's veto of the Wal-Mart bill this Wednesday (January 11), the vote will be about leadership in Annapolis and understanding what businesses need here at home. The Wal-Mart bill is poorly crafted, sets a dangerous precedent, and does little to provide health care for Washington County's uninsured. Our delegation to Annapolis should understand this and vote to sustain the Governor's veto.

The facts about the Wal-Mart bill have not changed. Last spring, the legislature voted to require companies in Maryland with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8% of payroll on health care. The law is a new version of an old idea: mandate that businesses pay for their employees' health insurance.

Proponents cleverly crafted a measure that would only apply to Wal-Mart, tying their bill to the interests of both anti-business factions and competitors of the giant retailer. These cynical tactics shielded the legislation from the scrutiny of smaller businesses and garnered the support of other large retailers, happy to see Wal-Mart lose in the legislature if not in the marketplace.

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The political debate should not be about the size of the company or the quality of the health care; it should be about the role of government. We currently do not allow government to dictate the spending priorities of private businesses, but passage of this law would change that. Once enacted, the numbers become points on the spectrum. Today the measure applies only to Wal-Mart. Tomorrow, the legislature could apply it to much smaller companies, stifling job creation for some and driving others out of Maryland altogether. A law intended to help the uninsured may actually hurt their chances for employment, replacing one social ill with another.

Even taking the narrower view of access to health insurance, this legislation does little to help. Nearly 740,000 Marylanders have no health insurance, but that is not the fault of a single large company. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2005 Employer Health Benefits survey, 99% of large companies offer health benefits, while that number is just over half for firms with fewer than 10 employees. Nearly 70% of the businesses in Washington County have fewer than 10 employees. The real threat to insuring uninsured workers comes from the increasing number of these small businesses that decide that they can no longer afford to offer coverage.

These smaller firms are in a health care crisis and shutter at the prospect of what the State might do to fix the problem. The legislature could reform medical liability and re-examine the state-mandated small group health insurance, both of which would drive down costs for small businesses. Instead, they pass the Wal-Mart bill which, at best, does nothing for small companies, and, at worst, threatens to expand and include them.

The Chamber strongly urges the Washington County delegation to Annapolis to support the Governor's position. Voting to sustain the veto should not present a problem for most of the delegation. They voted against the bill in the first place and generally support the Governor's pro-business agenda. The sole exception is Delegate John Donoghue.

We understand that Delegate Donoghue voted for the bill last spring and that his leadership position of Chief Deputy Majority Whip demands a measure of party loyalty. Still, we urge him to reconsider his position, sustain the Governor's veto, and look instead for solutions to the health insurance crisis that will have a meaningful impact in Washington County.

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