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Legislative mugging? Not by a long shot.

When a state or city government decides to give a big corporation a tax break in order to persuade it to relocate, everyone yawns. When the Maryland legislature votes to require Wal-Mart to spend more on health care for its workers, it's immediately accused of "legislative mugging" by none other than the Washington Post. Something's wrong with this picture.

If it's OK for a government to hand out goodies to a specific corporation, then why isn't it OK for the government to impose burdens on a specific corporation? If one is acceptable, than the other should be also. Even better: if one is bad, than the other is too.

As an aside, the Maryland legislature in this case hasn't even singled out Wal-Mart. It voted today to override Gov. Ehrlich's veto of legislation that would require all employers with more than 10,000 employees in Maryland to spend 8% of its payroll on health benefits for its workers or compensate the State. As it happens, of the four employers that are subject to the requirements, only Wal-Mart does not currently meet them. So, yes, only Wal-Mart will have to scramble to comply with the new law, but it's not "unfair and overbearing," and it's certainly not specific to Wal-Mart. As critics of the bill have pointed out, Wal-Mart is free to avoid the requirements by reducing their workforce in Maryland to fewer than 10,000 people. That's the difference between this bill and one that says "Wal-Mart shall. . . ."

But -- to get back to my main point -- even if the bill had targeted Wal-Mart, I fail to see the difference between this and a decision by the state of Michigan to give company-specific tax breaks to Delphi and Visteon. Both measures are corporation-specific. Both, say the politicians, are for the benefit of their respective states. The only difference is that in one case, a specific corporation is subject to special burdens, while in the other it's given special exemptions from burdens. Either both are OK, or they're both not.

Any legislative action that singles out a specific company is a bad idea. It blatantly violates the ideal of equal treatment under the law, and it invites corruption when the legislature gets into the business of handing out special goodies or dispensing special punishments. So I'd prefer not to see any company-specific legislation. But it's even worse when corporations take their yummy tax breaks and then complain about special requirements.

I'd like to say that the corporations can't have it both ways, but in this country, they often do.


Very few of those who oppose the Wal-Mart bill are actually going to be in favor of company-specific handouts, either. At least as far as I'm concerned, if you could promise me to repeal the Wal-Mart bill and simultaneously get rid of handouts for favored firms (as opposed to actual government contracting), I'd think it was my birthday...

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