On July 19, a federal judge struck down a state law aimed at punishing Wal-Mart for spending “too little” on health insurance. The next day’s coverage in The New York Times and The Washington Post portrayed the court case as a victory for the ultimate Big Business at the expense of workers – overlooking the impact that extending such a law would have on businesses in general.
New York Times writers Reed Abelson and Michael Barbaro opened their July 20 story lamenting “a setback to state efforts to force employers to provide more generous health benefits.” The Times’ headline said the judge gave Wal-Mart a “reprieve” – though his job was comparing the state law with existing federal law, not granting a criminal pardon.
The July 20 Post article, with a subhead that lamented “Measure Sought To Boost Workers’ Health Benefits,” by Matthew Mosk and Ylan Mui went even further, relaying the more strident comments of one of the overturned state law’s champions.
“These guys are billionaires,” the Post recorded state Senate President Thomas V. “Mike” Miller as saying about Wal-Mart, noting the lawmaker called the court case a matter of “good versus evil.”
Regardless of individual opinions of Wal-Mart, however, unions have sought to model more state legislation on the Maryland law – and not only for large-scale employers. In fact, Maryland already struck down a measure that would extend the “Wal-Mart Bill” requirements to smaller employers.
And, as The Wall Street Journal noted in a January 16 editorial, other states were crafting similar but more far-reaching bills: “In Rhode Island, proposed legislation takes aim at businesses with only 1,000 employees. In other states proposals would mandate payouts of 9% or more. Once the principle is established that employers must allocate a certain share of their payroll to health care, it becomes easier to gradually extend the mandate to all businesses.”
While not a party to the lawsuit, the small business advocacy group the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) praised the outcome of the lawsuit to which they had filed a friend of the court brief.
"We believe the real aim of this legislation was to establish a precedent that would ultimately subject Maryland small-business owners to a payroll tax,” the NFIB’s Ellen Valentino said in a July 19 press release on the heels of the court’s ruling.
“In fact,” she added, “many of the groups that supported the Fair Share bill also supported legislation that would require all small businesses to provide health insurance to their workers. Our members tell us they would like to provide insurance, but they can't afford it.”
While the Times and Post included reaction from Wal-Mart, neither paper included the perspective of NFIB officials, and while the Post presented Wal-Mart as a special interest group that hired “a brigade of lobbyists in Annapolis to block passage of the bill,” neither paper described left-leaning health care advocacy groups or labor unions supporting the law in that light.