CONCORD — A bill to create a paid family and medical leave insurance program for New Hampshire wage-earners cleared the House on Wednesday in a 219-142 vote largely along party lines.
The vote sets up a veto showdown between the Democratically controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who has proposed a very different paid family medical leave plan of his own in cooperation with Vermont.
The bill, SB 1, passed the Senate along party lines in February. It’s the first Senate bill to be acted on by the House, and is a major policy priority for Democrats.
Sununu’s Democratic opponent in the gubernatorial race last fall, former state Sen. Molly Kelly, blamed Sununu for the demise of a bill that had bipartisan support in the House last year, and made it a major campaign issue.
SB 1 sets up an insurance program that would provide 60 percent of wages for up to 12 weeks of qualified leave annually, funded by 0.05 percent universal withholding from paychecks. Individuals could not opt out of the program, but their employers could if they offered a similar benefit independently.
Manny Espitia, D-Nashua, told of how his parents could not be at his side during a major health crisis in his youth because they could not get time off work.
“There are times when people need to decide whether to choose their job or a loved one, and that is a decision no one should have to make,” he said. “Paid family and medical leave is a moral issue. It’s an opportunity to be with a family member when they are at their most vulnerable. We need to stand with the working people of New Hampshire and offer them protection when they need it most.”
Republicans, including Sununu, describe the bill as an income tax because of the mandatory deduction from paychecks.
They are also highly critical of a provision in the bill that allows the Commissioner of Employment Security the power to raise premiums to ensure the solvency of the fund.
They favor a plan announced by Sununu to create a voluntary plan in cooperation with Vermont, in which state employees from both states would create a risk pool large enough to attract private insurers at rates that would appeal to non-government workers who want the coverage.
Senate Minority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, said that plan could actually pass and be signed into law.
“The only impediment to the state having a paid family and medical leave plan is the mandatory requirement on businesses funded by an income tax that was proposed in the Senate plan,” he said.
“It is my hope that the governor vetoes SB 1 so that we can come to a bipartisan compromise that will deliver an opt-in paid family and medical leave insurance plan to Granite Staters who need it, without an income tax.”
Critics of the plan Sununu has developed with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott believe it will lead to a risky and costly pool of people to insure because only workers who plan to claim the benefit would opt in.
Earlier this month, seven companies responded to the governors’ request for information about the proposal, called the Twin State Voluntary Leave plan.
The companies were happy that the governor’s proposal calls for a third-party administrator, rather than a state-run program. But several of the responses suggested that an insurance program based on voluntary participation would be more costly to participants.
In its response, Sun Life Financial wrote that the “inclusion of the employee-level choice of whether or not to participate in the program could pose a challenge for insurers.”
The Hartford Financial Services estimated that the governors’ Twin-State plan would require premiums equivalent to a 0.8 to 1.2 percent payroll tax for any employer or worker opting in, compared to the 0.05 percent for the Senate plan.
In April of last year, the Senate voted along party lines to shelve a paid family leave proposal that had passed the Republican-led House three times, after Sununu indicated he would not sign the bill.