Maryland Less Merry for Wal-Mart

It's been called the Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT  ) bill, but officially, the Maryland General Assembly's new mandatory health-care spending bill is nondenominational. It just so happens that Wal-Mart is the only company that will feel the heat. Though Gov. Robert Ehrlich has promised to veto the Fair Share Health Care Act, there appear to be enough votes to override that veto. But that would stall the measure until early 2006.

What the act does is simple. It requires any company employing over 10,000 workers in the state to spend 8% of its payroll on health-care coverage. But while the plan may be simple, it's also simple to see how little sense it makes.

I'm not saying workers shouldn't get health insurance. I think they should, but a bill like this is a bad way to try to get it done. Suppose Wal-Mart can negotiate health insurance for all its employees but it costs only 5% of payroll? Suppose it simply spends more on premium health care for the folks in upper management? What then? Surely if a lawmaking body decides that it's in the state's best interest to push businesses to provide health insurance, it ought to have a better measure of success than the amount of money spent.

Don't bet on it. A peek at the legislature's home page -- which looks like something put together by a granny who took a weekend class in Web design -- makes me wonder whether the politicians there are capable of much cognitive subtlety. A glimpse at public comments on the issue convinces me that they're not. Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller flaunted his bias, telling TheWashington Post, "Wal-Mart doesn't do right by its employees." Even people who aren't Wal-Mart fans (count me among them) would concede that that's a debatable point.

What's not debatable is that competition, like grocer Giant, couldn't be happier. Part of the coalition pushing the bill, Giant Vice President Barry F. Scher told the Post that the bill was simply an effort to help create a "level playing field." Apparently, the fact that Giant can't keep a handle on its health-care costs is somehow Wal-Mart's fault.

But before get your schadenfreude on and chalk this up as a victory for the small, local company, remember this: Giant is no local, neighborhood market. It's a division of Ahold (NYSE: AHO  ) , an enormous Dutch company, one of the biggest retailers in the world. Ahold has been losing money -- and committing bookkeeping hijinks to try to cover it up -- for years.

A brief read of Ahold's finances shows that its U.S. retail sales are still a bit slow. It's clear to me that the involvement of this dubious and struggling corporate citizen in Maryland's "spank Wal-Mart" bill is a case of self-interest masquerading as public advocacy. Of course, all this will be lost on the mainstream media because Wal-Mart's such a popular whipping boy.

And that, unfortunately, is why this entire issue is of vital interest to Wal-Mart shareholders. When a misguided, soak-the-rich public sentiment combines with angry, disingenuous corporate competition and politicians looking to score points with their constituencies, it can mean trouble, even if it doesn't make sense.

For related Foolishness:

Seth Jayson loves The Netherlands, but he's not so sure about Dutch corporate management. He hates shopping at Giant, so Trader Joe's gets his biz. At the time of publication, he had no positions in any company mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.


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