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Family-leave supporters feel betrayed by Sununu

State House Bureau

April 24. 2018 10:53PM

CONCORD — As the family medical leave bill heads for near-certain defeat in the Senate on Thursday, supporters of the effort say they were double-crossed by Gov. Chris Sununu, and claim they have the Post-it Note to prove it.

Advocates for the bill, HB 628, claim they had built a bipartisan consensus in support of the measure that included buy-in from the key state agencies.

They succeeded in getting the bill passed through the full House on three separate occasions, and had high hopes for the upcoming Senate vote.

That was until Sununu came out against the plan two weeks ago in a letter to the Senate Finance Committee, which soon after voted along party lines to recommend against the program.

The full Senate, with a Republican majority, is expected to endorse that recommendation on Thursday, putting the matter to rest for this year at least.

Supporters of the bill had staked their hopes on vague statements in support of family medical leave made by Sununu during the campaign, and by communications with his office as the bill was being developed.

Amanda Sears, who has lobbied relentlessly for the bill through the “Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy” said the size of the employee contribution was increased from 0.5 percent to 0.67 percent of weekly wages, and the maximum available leave shrunk from 12 weeks to six in the hope of addressing concerns raised by Sununu.

Sears says she received a memo from the governor’s office in December suggesting the changes, and produced a copy of the memo with a hand-written Post-it Note attached.

It reads, “NH Dept. of Employment Security finds that if these changes are made, the program will be solvent.”

Sears said she got the analysis and attached note from D.J. Bettencourt, one of Sununu’s policy aides. The governor’s office would not identify the author of the unsigned note.

The Department of Employment Security and the Department of Insurance more recently put out statements claiming they could not attest to the solvency of the program — a turn of events that puzzled Sears and other backers of the bill.

“Gov. Sununu thanks to the pressure of insurance company lobbyists and the far right folded like a cheap suit,” said state Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, at a Tuesday news conference of SB 628 supporters. “Senators in the state Senate have an opportunity to vote their conscience.”

Deputy Commissioner Rich Lavers at the Department of Employment Security advised House committees throughout the process. He said the department’s position has been consistent, and has not changed to match Sununu’s recently announced opposition.

“That is completely inaccurate and unfair,” said Lavers. “The department has been neutral throughout and we’ve tried to be a useful resource for the legislature.”

Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt said the governor’s office worked with state agencies and advocates to explore potential options, and that some of the recommended changes were not adopted.

“At the time of the memo, Employment Security told our office that they believed these changes would make the program solvent,” said Vihstadt.

Employment Security then developed a model based on the changes, which the Department of Insurance reviewed.

“The Department of Insurance concluded an independent actuarial analysis would be needed to certify that any optional paid leave program would be solvent,” said Vihstadt. “While Gov. Sununu continues to support the concept of a paid family leave program, the details matter, and he believes that we cannot create a program that people would come to rely on that could eventually collapse.”

The backers of HB 628 are pressing their case right up to the day of the vote. Tuesday’s news conference featured Republican lawmakers from the House restating their support.

The Family Friendly Economy is hosting a news conference today that will feature the personal testimony of New Hampshire residents on how the lack of paid family medical leave has affected their lives.

“This is an easily tweaked program not requiring lawmakers to throw up their hands and give up,” said Sears.

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