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Wednesday, February 22, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

It's Wal-Mart's business, not the Legislature's

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Wal-Mart has been shifting its health-care costs to taxpayers, said state Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma. "I think taxpayers should be outraged."

"It's corporate welfare," said state Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.

That's one way to look at it. Here's another. Conway, who is secretary-treasurer of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 81, which does not represent any workers at Wal-Mart, and Kohl-Welles, who lectures in sociology and women's studies at the University of Washington, propose to cancel the employee-benefits policy of Wal-Mart Inc. and substitute their own.

Their bill was blocked, but we have not heard the last of it. It demanded that any for-profit company of at least 5,000 employees spend at least 9 percent of full-time payroll on medical benefits, not including benefits deducted from employee pay. Several companies might be affected, but only Wal-Mart has been identified. Everyone calls it "the Wal-Mart bill."

A similar bill was passed in Maryland that affected only Wal-Mart. Imagine the Legislature imposing a special labor law on one company. And in Washington, a special law is unconstitutional, because laws are supposed to apply to broad classes.

Imagine a law for one company being passed at the behest of people who don't work there. The bill is a project of the national labor movement, which sees Wal-Mart as a competitive threat to union retailers.

Wal-Mart also has become an icon of urban sprawl, SUVs, big-box shopping and other stuff that irritates the cultural left. These folks inoculate themselves with anti-Wal-Mart movies and books, none of which reaches the average American, who shops where the shopping is good.

By the general rules of a commercial republic, what a company pays its workers is not a public question. It is between management and employees. Raising the issue of state medical costs is a way of making it a public question. State health coverage provides a new way of doing this: It made motorcycle helmets a public question. Then cigarettes. Now Wal-Mart.

Regarding Wal-Mart: In 2004, the state says, 3,180 employees, 22 percent of the total, had at least one family member on Medicaid. The state doesn't say, but most likely it was a child, because Washington is unusually generous with Medicaid for children. Oregon and Idaho are stricter, but Washington enrolls children from families of four with incomes up to $48,000 a year.

Wal-Mart says its average cash wage here is $10.61, or $22,000 per year for full-time workers — and nearly half the Wal-Mart employees with a family member on Medicaid are part-timers.

It would be nice to know how many employees had kids on Medic-aid before they came to Wal-Mart. If an employee chooses to keep her child on Medicaid, because it's a good deal and the state lets her do it, is that corporate welfare? And if, to some extent, it works that way, perhaps it is the Legislature's fault for being too liberal with the taxpayers' money.

Wal-Mart offers medical insurance after six months of employment. Some workers haven't been there six months. Insurance is optional, with the premiums deducted from pay. The company says 57 percent of its workers in Washington have signed up for benefits, though some for coverage much leaner than Medicaid's. Another 24 percent have coverage through their spouses,Medicaid or some other way. In total, 81 percent have some medical coverage.

Costco's pay and benefits are better, which buys it more employee stability. Wal-Mart undertakes to train more entry-level people. Such is competition. People are free to work where they will and shop where they will. Some 17,000 in this state work at Wal-Mart.

I don't know their business well enough to tell them how to run it. But then, I'm not in the Legislature.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

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