Pressure Mounts for Wash. House Leaders Considering “Wal-Mart bill”

February 15, 2006

Pressure is mounting for majority House Democrats in Washington state to vote on a bill that would force minimum health care spending by large employers, while some lawmakers suggested the issue could be left to the voters in a fall referendum.

The measure, which would require companies with more than 5,000 workers in the state to devote 9 percent of their payroll spending to health care, has languished in key House and Senate committees.

With a major session cutoff deadline approaching, supporters and opponents were busy making their cases in closed-door meetings and in the Capitol’s corridors.

“It will be a very interesting 24 hours,” said Casey Corr, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, a major supporter of the bill.

The legislation being considered in Washington this year is part of a push by organized labor in more than 30 states to force minimum health care spending by employers.

Critics of Washington’s so-called “Wal-Mart bill” got a piece of ammunition they’d been seeking for weeks: a state report detailing the number of government workers benefiting from the taxpayer-funded Medicaid program in Washington state.

The new report, released by Gov. Chris Gregoire after requests from lawmakers and The Associated Press, showed that state government had about the same number of workers benefiting from Medicaid as Wal-Mart did in Washington in 2004.

The percentage of Wal-Mart’s work force receiving Medicaid benefits for themselves or a dependent was much larger — the company has about 16,000 workers in Washington, while state government has more than 100,000.

All units of Washington’s local governments, meanwhile, had more than 14,400 workers or their dependents benefiting from Medicaid — although it was unclear what percentage of the total local government work force that represented.

Cle Elum Republican Rep. Bill Hinkle, a leading House GOP lawmaker on health care issues and an opponent of the health care spending measure, said supporters of the bill should “take a second, sober look at some of the rhetoric” in light of the new data.

“You don’t see the Wal-Mart employees here picketing. You see the union organizers. If this was such a deal for the Wal-Mart employees, where are they?” asked Hinkle, who requested the government worker information from the Gregoire administration in early January.

The bill’s supporters countered with a new letter from regional grocer Safeway, whose Seattle division president echoed a position taken by organized labor — that some companies are providing sub-par benefits, pushing health care costs onto taxpayers and gaining an “unfair competitive advantage.”

While the letter from Safeway’s Greg Sparks didn’t mention any competitors by name, supporters of Washington state’s minimum health spending bills have used similar language to target retail behemoth Wal-Mart.

The Arkansas-based company, which is the United States’ largest private employer, has dismissed the Washington measure as a political campaign by unions frustrated by their inability to organize the chain’s workers.

“Give us a little bit of credit where we actually deserve credit,” spokeswoman Jennifer Holder said.

“We know we have workers on Medicaid. We’re trying to improve that. We’re asking the state to help us improve that, but we’re not getting any answers,” Holder said.

Union supporters of the bill crammed the Capitol’s hallways, and staged a noontime rally to urge House lawmakers to bring the measure up for a vote.

Their message was directed squarely at House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, seen as a crucial point of resistance. While never officially declaring the bill dead on arrival, Chopp has sent out a stream of discouraging signals.

Gregoire also has not offered wholehearted support, and said that she doubts the measure will reach her desk this year.

But many of the House’s majority Democrats have signed a letter to Chopp from Rep. Brendan Williams, D-Olympia, asking for a vote.

Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, said some Democratic lawmakers are considering a referendum on the issue, to give voters the ultimate decision.

“We sat down and talked about it as a group. We’re going to bring up the idea of a referendum and see if it goes anywhere. It makes sense for the people to vote on it,” Morrell said.

Earlier this month, the United Food and Commercial Workers launched a $100,000 television advertising and direct-mail campaign targeted to last through the November elections.

No matter how it’s handled, the issue could be a major one in the fall campaigns — and unions “will be watching how this will be handled,” Corr said.

Topics Legislation Washington Leadership

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