Bruce Newcomb, the powerful Republican speaker of Idaho’s House of Representatives, has a radical idea for the conservative, business-friendly state: He’s threatening to draft a law that would require Wal-Mart to either provide health insurance for its Idaho employees, or pay the state for providing coverage through the Medicaid program.

Around the country, several studies indicate that, compared to employees of other big companies, Wal-Mart employees are paid less, get fewer benefits, and are more likely to rely on welfare programs (HCN, 6/7/04: Wal-Mart’s Manifest Destiny).

Armed with those studies, Newcomb says, "Rather than taxpayers subsidizing the wealthiest family in the world (Wal-Mart heirs), maybe the wealthiest family in the world ought to reimburse Medicaid."

Wal-Mart officials say they don’t rely on Medicaid and other welfare programs to cover employees. But Newcomb has asked Idaho agencies to determine how often the 6,400 Wal-Mart employees in Idaho tap Medicaid. He’s also collected copies of Wal-Mart documents that advise its California employees on how to apply for state aid.

California tackled the issue last November, with a ballot initiative that would have required big companies to shoulder more health-insurance costs, but voters narrowly defeated it.

Newcomb’s proposal isn’t final yet, and would apply to all big companies in Idaho. If he pushes it through the Legislature’s next session, which begins in January, it would likely benefit Albertsons, a nationwide grocery chain based in Boise. Albertsons’ better pay and benefits make it harder for the chain to compete with Wal-Mart. "State policy," Newcomb says, "should level the playing field."