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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Family-leave bill faces veto

April 15. 2018 3:05AM

Gov. Chris Sununu has finally made his position clear on the paid family- and medical-leave insurance program that passed the House and is now before the Senate.

He doesn't like it.

Even though a dedicated cadre of House Republicans stuck with Democrats to support the bill (HB 628) through three separate House votes, it faces an uphill battle in the Senate.

Sununu's opposition is likely the death knell, at least for the current version.

In an April 9 letter to the Senate Finance Committee, Sununu lays out his reasons.

He is concerned that the program may not be solvent as designed and is opposed to the opt-out provisions.

He wants a program that would require people to opt in.

"While I believe access to a paid-leave program would provide a benefit to some Granite Staters, it is not in our 'Live Free or Die' nature to force citizens to pay for a service they do not want," states Sununu. "HB 628's current opt-out provision is unduly burdensome on both employees and employers, and the need to have the opt-out document notarized is absolutely unnecessary and cumbersome."

The plan gives employees only one opportunity to opt-out, at the start of employment, which Sununu described as "antithetical to a voluntary program" that would "administratively trap people."

And here's the key line: "HB 628 would effectively create an income tax, which I obviously can't support."

The governor cited the inability of the departments of Employment Security and Insurance to certify that the program as proposed will be solvent, and called for independent research to determine the number of employees who would voluntary choose coverage, and the frequency with which they would make claims.

"Only then would we have any ability to determine the true cost of such a program," he wrote. "To advance the cause of an optional paid family- and medical-leave program, the state must independently hire outside experts to design and develop a program that is guaranteed to be solvent."

The bill calls for a 0.67 percent wage contribution from employees, who can choose to opt out of the program at the start of a new job.

After qualifying, a worker would get 60 percent of average wages for up to six weeks, with a minimum benefit of $125 a week.

Qualifying events would include birth, adoption or fostering of a child; or the serious illness of a spouse, civil union partner, child, parent, grandparent or in-laws, as defined by the federal Family Medical Leave Act; it also includes treatment for addiction.

The House Finance Committee, under the leadership of Vice Chair Lynn Ober, R-Hudson, rewrote much of the bill, changing it into a short-term disability program administered by private insurance companies, that employers would be required to provide for employees who choose to participate.

The House overturned the Finance Committee recommendation, defeated the Ober amendment, and passed the bill as originally presented, although Sununu says he favors the Ober approach.

"A concept I find attractive and worth exploring is for the state to work with private third-party insurers to provide optional paid leave polices," he writes.

The conservative policy group Americans For Prosperity applauded Sununu's decision to come out against the bill.

"The idea of running a massive new state entitlement program never made sense and the opt-out provision in this bill is a nightmare," said AFP-NH director Greg Moore. Hopefully, this will send a clear message to the Senate that this bill is unworkable and it will be set aside."

The bill's chief sponsor, Democratic Rep. Mary Gile of Concord, is not giving up.

"HB 628 is the result of 18 years of work, including four feasibility studies, one actuarial study and a cost analysis," she said. "It was also studied extensively by DES economists for solvency and sustainability."

She pointed out that the bill was endorsed by more than 100 businesses that signed a letter of support.

"Following HB 628's successful bipartisan votes in the House, the governor reiterated his support for the concept and suggested more work was needed in the Senate," said Gile. "I'm trying to be positive, because the governor included family medical leave in his platform. I hope there's time for him to change his mind."

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