Democrats began their legislative push for a state-wide paid family leave program on Tuesday, calling the proposal a workforce development tool that will attract young families to New Hampshire.
“This is a paid family and medical leave insurance plan that is a real plan, that’s available, accessible, and affordable,” said Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes during testimony in a crowded Finance Committee hearing.
The bill - labeled Senate Bill 1 - is a top priority for Democrats in Concord, who tried unsuccessfully to pass a similar measure last session. While last year’s bill cleared the House with bipartisan support, it failed along party lines in the Senate after Gov. Chris Sununu voiced concerns about the price tag.
Democrats now control both chambers in the legislature. They'll likely vote on competing measures this session, as Sununu is preparing to release a second paid family leave plan that he says removes any risk from taxpayers.
SB1 calls for up to twelve weeks of paid leave at up to 60% of a worker’s salary. Employees could 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 .5% 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.
Feltes called the measure “actuarial sound,” and pushed his colleagues on the Finance Committee to support it.
“Having an ability to have temporary wage replacement insurance so you don’t have to choose between work and family in that situation,” Feltes said, “is so critical.”
During Tuesday’s hearing, the bill faced skepticism from GOP lawmakers and activists.
“It is an income tax, plain and simple. Page two, line 35, right there in black and white,” said Senator Chuck Morse, referring to the language in the bill spelling out the tax on wages.
He also bristled at the bill’s “one size fits all” approach.
“Why must the government tell workers: this is the benefit you must pay for’? That is not a choice.”
Sununu rolled out his plan - the Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan - earlier this month alongside Vermont’s Republican Governor Phil Scott. That plan would enroll nearly 20,000 state employees on both sides of the Connecticut River in a privately run policy. Employees in both states would have the option of purchasing their own paid family leave coverage, or an employer could choose to offer it as a benefit.
“By working together and with a private insurer we will be able to start this program more quickly, effectively and reliably than if each of us had to start from scratch,” the governors wrote in a joint op-ed in Seacoast.com this week. “And our proposal ensures we are not placing the burden of start-up costs, ongoing administration, and the risk of underfunding and insolvency on our taxpayers.”
Democrats say the governors’ voluntary Twin State plan will fail to attract a large enough pool of participants, which will drive up premiums and shut out the low-income workers who could benefit from paid leave.
Sununu hasn’t released details of the Twin State plan yet. The legislation would need to clear Democratically-controlled legislatures in both states.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the size of the payroll tax is .05%. The correct level is .5%.