CHARLESTON — No one has written an official obituary, but it appears the hotly disputed “Wal-Mart bill” is dead, at least in the state Senate, for this session.

Two clues lead to that conclusion.

First, the bill that would compel Wal-Mart — and no other business in this state, unless it hires at least 10,000 workers — to pay 8 percent of its profits toward health insurance for its employees was triple-referenced to three Senate committees.

That in itself normally makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get a bill out for a vote.

Then there is the strategy of Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, chairman of the Labor Committee, the proposal’s initial destination.

Nothing is set in stone, Oliverio said at the end of the week, but the senator prefers to wait and see how similar legislation plays out elsewhere.

“We’re gathering information,” he said.

Specifically, he wants to look at Maryland, which enacted such a law, then had to override a gubernatorial veto to make it stick.

“My sense is that I view the 50 states’ legislatures as 50 laboratories of democracy,” he said.

“Right now, this laboratory experiment with Wal-Mart is ongoing in Maryland. My sense is we watch that experiment for a year or two and see if we can learn from that before we make any decision on this subject.”

Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, was a strong advocate of the bill, saying huge corporations such as Wal-Mart were dumping the cost of providing health insurance for their workers on the general public.

Unable to afford health care, he said, such employees working at low wages turn to government-run programs such as Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

And that, in turn, imposes a huge burden on the public along with the uncompensated care given at hospitals and by other providers.

In Maryland, Oliverio said, the new law is more than a year from implementation because of built-in timelines.

In one Senate session, the Wal-Mart bill provoked a heated debate.

Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, described it as a backdoor approach by labor-friendly lawmakers to do what big unions failed to accomplish — organize the giant retail chain.

In effect, he complained, some lawmakers were bent on having the Legislature perform “the dirty work of union bosses.”

Kessler, however, pointed to concerns by chambers of commerce about the rising trend of uncompensated care that ultimately affects the business community.

In the debate, Sprouse said 75 percent of Wal-Mart’s workforce had health coverage, and he voiced fears that lawmakers, if the bill was enacted, would come back and lower the threshold to embrace smaller firms.

“We’ll gather some facts,” Oliverio said.

“But for now, it’s probably best to see what happens there (in Maryland) and to see if we can learn anything from that.”

— E-mail:

mannix@register-herald.com

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