QUESTION: Why should anyone care whether Wal-Mart or other large Oregon employers pay bigger chunks of employee health care costs?

ANSWER: Because if they don't, the nation's taxpayers will pick up the cost.

This question takes on added urgency as the Oregon AFL-CIO plans to file a ballot measure this week to force Wal-Mart and other behemoth employers to spend at least 9 percent of its payroll on employee health insurance.

The Century Foundation (www.tcf.org), an organization that attempts to dispel myths and bring facts of public policy debates to the table, says Wal-Mart, as the nation's most profitable retailer in the United States, earned record profits of $10 billion last year.

TCF also says a recent 16-state report by Good Jobs First, says Wal-Mart ranks near or at the top in the number of its employees and their family members who enrolled in government-sponsored health insurance programs.

In order for Wal-Mart to achieve these profit levels, it must keep down labor costs, including how much it spends on employee benefits, such as health insurance.

TCF reports Wal-Mart insures about 45 percent of its work force, but that most Wal-Mart employees who are uninsured are on government-funded health plans because they can't afford the monthly premiums on their low wages and salaries.

It shouldn't come as any surprise that taxpayers subsidize a significant portion of health care bills for employees of one of the nation's wealthiest businesses.

Ballot measures, such as the one proposed by the AFL-CIO, typically are a poor method of enacting public policy. Wise public policy, which passes constitutional tests and meets the needs of the greatest number, usually develop through methodical legislative process by those elected to represent us in Salem or the nation's capital.

That only points to a bigger problem: Short of any real solutions by lawmakers, the public is beginning to take matters into its own hands. In this case, Wal-Mart is an easy target for its habits of making big money on the backs of poorly paid workers who can't afford health insurance.

If the lawmakers aren't going to address the issue through a serious discussion on national health care reform, this may be one ballot measure that's worth running past voters.

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