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Right Field

Always Low Interference

By Russ Smith | Posted 4/13/2005

It’s not often I agree with a Sun editorial, but an April 8 opinion deriding Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s lack of “monumental legislation” passed during the just-concluded General Assembly session did include one fine sentence about the function of government.“Inaction,” the writer concluded, “can also be a blessing, of course.”

The paper was referring, not surprisingly, to the governor’s third consecutive failure to enhance Maryland’s revenue through legalized slot machines. That debate will begin anew in next year’s gubernatorial election, and one can only hope that in 2006 Ehrlich will muster a lot more energy on the proposal’s behalf.

But aside from a bill that would honor native Baltimorean Thurgood Marshall by attaching his name to BWI Airport—I don’t buy Senate President Mike Miller’s contention that such a move would put the airport at a competitive disadvantage with Washington’s Dulles and Reagan airports—there wasn’t much for Ehrlich to support. (Not that the governor offered his opinion on even this minor matter.)

Why, for example, would a conservative governor enthusiastically embrace legislation that approves funding for embryonic stem-cell research the year before he stands for re-election? Ehrlich’s low-key endorsement of the research last Saturday on WBAL radio was pure politics; too late for immediate action, but a nod to centrist voters. I don’t happen to agree with Ehrlich’s reluctance to sign a bill giving certain rights to unmarried couples, but even though his expected veto will be overridden, he can’t afford to alienate his bloc of cultural conservatives.

The most disturbing news out of Annapolis last week was the Senate passing a veto-proof bill taxing private companies (with at least 10,000 employees) that don’t spend at least 8 percent of their payroll disbursements on health care. (Maryland would be the first state to approve this punitive law.) The House, last month, also affirmed a similar bill by a large margin, and reconciliation between the two chambers won’t be complicated. Ehrlich will veto the bill, as he should, and the attempt to override it will occur in the opening days of the 2006 session. Perhaps in the intervening months the governor can coalesce a group of both large- and small-business owners to twist the arms of legislators who voted for the measure. It’d be time well spent.

As has been noted in the daily newspapers, the only private company affected by this particular smarmy piece of government intervention is Wal-Mart, a retail behemoth under constant attack for its lack of unions, competitive pricing, and low wages.

Personally, I can’t stand even entering a Wal-Mart; aside from the instant sense of vertigo it creates with aisle upon aisle of product, generally awful service, and a puritanical policy of offering magazines, CDs, and movies that it deems socially acceptable, the stores are just too confusing to me. Same goes for Home Depot, Sports Authority, Ikea, and Target. Chains don’t bother me in theory—the proliferation of Barnes and Noble bookstores across the country is one of the best commercial innovations in the past 15 years—but you pick and choose.

Nevertheless, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t shopped at Wal-Mart (including my wife and kids) because of the lower prices. The corporation, which employs about 15,000 Marylanders, can be expected to lay off an unspecified number of workers if the legislation holds. Far more frightening is that if Wal-Mart is forced to make concessions, and a Democrat defeats Ehrlich next year, that current number of 10,000 might eventually be lowered so that much smaller companies would be affected, resulting in even more layoffs. Also, such a law is a powerful disincentive for other firms to do business in Maryland.

Corporations as an entity are savaged by left-wing media outlets and activists, but it’s Wal-Mart today that draws the most ire, with opponents citing the use of illegal immigrants—one wonders if any of those protesters have a housekeeper or maid not in possession of a green card—and discrimination lawsuits. On the other hand, no one is forced to work there. An April 7 Sun article recounted Wal-Mart’s attempt to counter criticism with a media session at its Arkansas headquarters last week, and as reporter Andrea K. Walker writes, the company has been slow to switch into damage-control mode. It’s probably the same hubris that Microsoft showed several years ago when it was sued by Bill Clinton’s Justice Department for monopolistic practices (the initiation that, not so coincidentally, dovetailed with the dot-com bust).

Wal-Mart Chief Executive H. Lee Scott Jr. claims that when a new store is opened the company receives “10 times more applicants than it has jobs” and can’t justify higher wages because of low profit margins. Maybe Scott’s full of baloney, but the higher principle of state government meddling with private companies is ominous, not only for people desiring a job, but consumers as well.

I hope Ehrlich’s planning to make this anti-business legislation a cornerstone of his re-election campaign against Martin O’Malley or Doug Duncan. If the governor is vigorous in his defense of companies being permitted to control their internal affairs, he could reap the benefit of electing more Republicans to Maryland’s General Assembly, and maybe his next term will boast more real accomplishments.

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