CONCORD — The campaign to put a mandatory paid family and medical leave bill on the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu is halfway there, clearing the higher hurdle with approval in the state Senate on Thursday.
As expected, all 13 Senate Democrats embraced the measure while all 10 Republicans opposed it.
The legislation (SB 1), a top priority of Democratic legislative leaders, now heads to the House of Representatives.
The House in past years has approved this even when it was under Republican control.
With a House Democratic majority, opponents are well aware that later this spring this legislation in some form will clear that body.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, D-Concord, said opponents focus only on the cost of this insurance plan and not the benefits.
“How can you put a price tag on being there with a newborn, how can you put a price tag on being there with a family member who’s dying?” Feltes asked rhetorically.
SB1 calls for up to 12 weeks of paid leave at up to 60 percent of a worker’s salary. Employees use the benefit for the birth or adoption of a child, to take care of a sick family member, or to manage their own serious illness.
It would be paid for with a 0.5 percent payroll tax, covered by an employer or passed along to the worker. Unlike last year’s version, there is no “opt out” option for employees. The Democratic-backed plan also would seek to hire an outside company to manage the program.
Senate Republican Leader Chuck Morse warned, however, that if New Hampshire adopts this model employers will respond by slashing payrolls to get under its mandate.
The legislation only applies to companies with 20 or more workers.
“I honestly believe those decisions will be made to support computers in place of employees,” Morse said.
During his budget address earlier Thursday, Gov. Chris Sununu promoted his voluntary medical leave plan that he and Vermont Gov. Rick Scott have proposed for both states.
“This budget includes enabling language to begin the implementation of the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan — authorizing a bid process and association health plans — which will help create a truly voluntary paid family medical leave plan that will never create or require an income tax,” Sununu said.
Feltes said Sununu’s proposal remains an outline and not a final proposal.
“We haven’t seen it yet. No plan. Lot of talk, no plan,” Feltes said.
Morse said he’s counting on Sununu to block this.
“I would suggest to the governor of New Hampshire that this bill get vetoed the day it gets to his desk,” Morse said.
Feltes said the bill has been amended to give the employer options either to pass on a payroll tax, a paycheck deduction for workers, to pay the employees’ costs or letting a firm finance it through a self-insurance program.
“The majority of the Finance Committee will not view the talking point of political operatives and mislabel this bill” as an income tax, Feltes said.
Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said this is not a political argument.
“For employees it is an income tax if it is being assessed to you,” Bradley said.
Advocates maintain that this benefit is necessary to attract young people to stay or move to this state since it’s available in some design in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York.
“We are a rapidly aging state and this is threatening our future economy,” said Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua.
Bradley said that unlike in previous years there has not been any effort to build Republican support for this measure, which is needed for it to become law.
“The debate about it is kind of over. It is now about how,” Bradley said.
Senate Republicans maintain the legislation is financially risky as it would not undergo a rigorous insurance analysis before it being imposed.
“This is junk compared to today’s realities and it needs to be assessed,” said Sen. Robert Guida, R-Warren.
Feltes said there will be scientific research before it goes forward.
And Sen. David Watters, D-Dover, said there’s no need to delay this program by six months or more waiting for that GOP study.
“Do I have to tell my Mom hold off on getting your Alzheimer’s? How long can we wait?” Watters said.