Democrats in the New Hampshire Senate passed one of their key priorities on Thursday, as a paid family medical leave insurance program cleared the chamber on a party line vote.
The measure, symbolically titled Senate Bill 1, creates a mandatory program that would let workers take up to 12 weeks of paid time off to take care of a loved one, or after the birth or adoption of a child.
It would be funded with a payroll tax of .5%, covered either by the employer or passed along to the employee.
Senate Dan Feltes, a Concord Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor, told colleagues it’s a way to ensure workers can be with their family when they need them.
“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 is dying?” he asked.
Democrats are framing the measure as a workforce development tool, and an important way to protect low-wage earners from having to choose between work and family needs.
During Thursday’s lengthy and often testy debate, Republican Jeb Bradley put forward an amendment to put the plan on hold until an independent actuarial analysis could be done on its solvency, saying that the current cost figures are based on outdated numbers. The amendment, which offered $250,000 to fund a study, was rejected by Democrats who believe their analysis is sound.
Feltes says that the bill has been vetted for years, and that families can no longer wait.
“In order to move forward, we can’t leave anyone behind,” said Feltes.
Republicans also criticized the estimated startup costs for the program, which could reach $16 million. Backers of the bill say that if they successfully contract a third party to administer the program, that price tag will be lower.
There were also more philosophical arguments made in opposition to the bill.
“We are again listening to the siren song of tax and spend, now accompanied, if you don’t mind, by the symphony of government mandates,” said Republican Senator Bob Giuda.
After passing the Senate, the bill will now go to the Democratic-controlled House. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse, in raised voice, offered this advice should it clear the lower chamber: “I would suggest to the governor of New Hampshire that this get vetoed the day it goes to his desk.”
Gov. Chris Sununu does have his own paid family leave plan in mind that would take a different approach than the one offered in Senate Bill 1. He’s proposing a voluntary program that would partner with Vermont. The so-called Twin State Voluntary Leave Plan would provide family leave insurance for approximately 18,500 state employees in Vermont in New Hampshire, and allow individuals in the private sector to purchase policies.
Democrats criticize that approach, saying that a voluntary system would lead to a smaller pool of participants and, therefore, higher premium prices. They believe that would put the program out of reach for lower-wage workers who would benefit from it the most.