CONCORD — Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has presented his plan for paid family medical leave in cooperation with Vermont. Now it’s the Democrats’ turn.
On Tuesday, they’ll lay out their plan in the first public hearing on Senate Bill 1, co-sponsored by all 14 Democratic state senators and the chair of House Finance.
Lawmakers appeared close to passing paid family medical leave last year until Sununu voiced his opposition to any plan that required withholding premiums from paychecks. He sees that as just another form of income tax and was worried about the plan’s solvency.
A bipartisan majority in the House voted 171-162 to pass the plan, which called for a voluntary payroll deduction of 0.5 percent. After Sununu weighed in, the Republican-led Senate voted 14-10 along party lines to refer the bill to interim study, which, in the second year of the two-year session, is essentially the kiss of death.
After a gubernatorial campaign in which paid family leave emerged as a key issue, there was little doubt that a new bill would be proposed in 2019.
What has emerged this year, with Democrats holding a Senate majority, is a bill that has some similarities to last year’s measure, but with differences the bill’s sponsor say are designed to address concerns raised by Sununu last year.
“It stresses a public-private partnership,” Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes of Concord said. “We heard Gov. Sununu express his interest in a public-private partnership and we’ve modified the bill to do that, and we included job protections for workers on leave as well, in response to his concerns. We’ve given a lot of what the governor wants and we’re hopeful that the governor will support the bill.”
Senate Bill 1 lays out the reasons paid family leave has emerged as an issue that has both the governor and legislature staking out positions, albeit from very different perspectives.
Both sides agree that a well-designed income replacement program is needed for people who have to care for a new baby or sick child.
Family and medical leave insurance will “help New Hampshire attract and retain the workforce of tomorrow; enable parents to bond with biological, adopted or foster children, help meet the needs of an aging population and address our caregiver crisis,” according to the preamble to The Granite Caregiving Act of 2019, as SB 1 is titled.
“It will help advance the health of New Hampshire’s workforce, including combating the opioid public health epidemic.”
Sununu echoes the same themes in his own description of the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan, which states, “This wage replacement program can be particularly attractive to younger employees looking to start or expand their family and to employees caring for an elderly parent or a child struggling with opioid dependence.”
But that’s about where the agreement ends, as both parties have taken a decidedly different approach.
The Senate bill calls for premiums equal to 0.5 percent of wages, which could be paid by an employer or employee, or some combination of the two. Employers would be exempt from the plan if they offered a comparable benefit on their own, or through a collective bargaining agreement.
After contributing to the program for at least six months, an employee would be eligible for up to 12 weeks of paid leave equal to 60 percent of the employee’s average wage, with a floor of $125 a week and a ceiling set at 85 percent of the average weekly wage in New Hampshire.
Unlike last year’s bill, there would be no opt-out provision for employees unless they work for a company that has its own approved program with an opt-out option.
The state would solicit bids from existing insurance companies to administer the program, and if none came forward, it would be administered by the Department of Employment Security, just like unemployment insurance.
Sununu and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, who vetoed paid family medical leave in his state last year, have partnered to propose a different approach.
They want to combine the state government workforce of 18,500 employees across the two states to create a risk pool big enough to attract a private insurance company.
That company would price the coverage based on its own actuarial analysis and the states would pay the premium as part of an employee benefit.
Once that’s all set up, non-governmental employees could jump into the program through their employer, or individually if their employer declines to participate.
The Vermont-New Hampshire program would pay 60 percent of wages, but for a maximum of six weeks per year, not 12. The premium cost would be determined by the insurance company with the winning bid, assuming one steps forward.
With dueling proposals now in place, one possible outcome is an impasse in which neither plan succeeds. Sununu needs enabling legislation from a legislature where Democratic leaders have already panned his plan, while the bill they hope to pass will most likely need his signature to become law.