ANNAPOLIS – Conjuring up images of the fierce, partisan fight over the Wal-Mart bill that raged in the opening days of this year’s General Assembly session, a Prince George’s County lawmaker has introduced legislation that would require every business in the state to provide employee healthcare.
The bill, sponsored by Delegate James W. Hubbard, D-Prince George’s, would force businesses with less than 10,000 employees to put at least 4.5 percent of their payrolls toward health benefits for their workers, or pay the difference into the state’s Medicaid fund.
“The bottom line is to provide the people of the working families in Maryland with healthcare,” Hubbard said. “It’s cheaper to provide healthcare this way than to use emergency rooms as the primary care providers.”
Lawmakers passed the so-called Wal-Mart bill into law Jan. 12 by overriding Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s May 2005 veto. It forces corporations with more than 10,000 workers in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on employee health benefits.
For House minority whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Southern Maryland, Hubbard’s legislation was no surprise following the passage of the Wal-Mart bill.
“Obviously, we said that the only way (the Wal-Mart bill) makes sense for the proponents is to start at a high number and ratchet their way down,” he said. “They said they weren’t going to do that, but here it is.”
Other opponents of Hubbard’s bill, including Ehrlich, have taken to calling it the “son of Wal-Mart” bill.
“We knew it was just a matter of time before the General Assembly would attempt to mandate that all employers, including small businesses, provide health benefits,” Ehrlich said in a written statement. “Government should not be in the ‘business’ of micromanaging an employer’s payroll.”
Ehrlich was scheduled to hold a press conference Wednesday to address the bill, but aides said he was unable to attend because he was held up and a Board of Public Works meeting.
Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development, spoke in Ehrlich’s place at Daily Discoveries, a childcare center in Gambrills.
“We in Maryland, folks, are in position to have the best healthcare system, but you don’t do that through legislation,” he said. “It’s creates and unnecessary hurdle for economic developers.”
Amy Weaver, president and director of the Daily Discoveries, said that her business, which already provides healthcare to its 40 employees, would be forced to pay an additional $16,000 per year under Hubbard’s bill.
“Imposing another payroll tax would be devastating,” she said. “I’m not willing to pay my employees less. Childcare is already an underpaid industry.”
The bill includes $15 million for matching grants to help ease the burden on businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
Lawmakers and interests on both sides of the bill have conflicting views on the bill’s chances of passage during this session.
During the bitter fight to override Ehrlich’s veto of the Wal-Mart bill, the Assembly’s majority Democrats joined with organized labor and liberal interests groups to hand the governor a stinging defeat. Wednesday, however, it appeared unlikely that coalition would come together with enough force to propel Hubbard’s bill forward.
House majority leader, Delegate Kumar P. Barve, D-Montgomery, who was a vocal supporter of the Wal-Mart bill and the veto override, said he won’t support the new legislation.
“I just don’t think we should be doing that,” he said. “We should wait to see how the Wal-Mart bill works.”
Fred D. Mason, Jr., president of the Maryland State and D.C. AFL-CIO, said he was optimistic that lawmakers would take a good look at the bill because of rising gas, heating and electricity prices.
“If you add not having healthcare on top of that, it’s absolutely crazy,” he said. “There has to be a rational approach to solving this dilemma.”
But, Mason admitted that this bill will not garner the attention or lobbying resources that the Wal-Mart bill did.
O’Donnell, the minority whip, an ardent opponent of both bills, said that Hubbard’s chances did not look good.
“The only reason this won’t go anywhere is because it’s an election year,” he said. “But, I can tell you it will be back. The liberals will bring it back when they don’t have to face the voters.”
Hubbard’s bill would also relax requirements for the state’s Medicaid program, allowing families with income that is less than twice the poverty level to apply for aid. Currently, the threshold varies between 32 percent and 39 percent of the federal poverty level.
To fund the mandates, Hubbard included a tobacco tax increase of $1 per pack. Hubbard said that he began introducing similar versions of the bill, beginning in 2003. Pieces have been plucked out since then and passed as stand-alone bills, including the Wal-Mart bill and a similar tobacco tax increase sponsored by Delegate Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery.