Capital Beat: New Hampshire, Vermont on verge of paid family leave stalemate

  • Republican Gov. Chris Sununu smiles during his inauguration address during a ceremony at the State House in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Sununu begins his second, two-year term facing a Legislature controlled by Democrats. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

  • Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, right, smiles as he acknowledges familiar faces in the gallery with his wife Valerie during his inauguration ceremony at the State House in Concord, N.H., Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. Sununu begins his second, two-year term facing a Legislature controlled by Democrats. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa) Charles Krupa

Published: 4/13/2019 7:00:20 PM

Somewhere on Senate President Donna Soucy’s proverbial desk is a legislative proposal that Democrats have championed for years.

It arrived sometime late last week. It’s already been voted on by the House and Senate. It’s been signed off by all other necessary parties. It’s unknown when it will head on to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. But when Senate Bill 1, Democrats’ paid family and medical leave plan, does make its final journey, its fate has already been sealed. A guaranteed veto from New Hampshire’s Republican governor awaits.

What happens next is much less clear.

Paid family and medical leave insurance has become a big topic that polls highly, and has animated state and even presidential campaigns. But nearly a year after Democrat Molly Kelly put the policy at the center of her bid for governor, and three months after Sununu released a twin proposal with Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, there has been little consensus across party lines on a number of competing proposals.

In fact, it’s looking more and more like a stalemate.

On April 4, Vermont’s Democrat-controlled House passed H.107, a Vermont-specific alternative to the Scott-Sununu plan. But the 92-52 vote fell short of the 100 vote tally needed for the 150-member House to override Scott’s anticipated veto, and Democrats there would need to flip two votes to have any chance at all.

In New Hampshire, Senate Bill 1 has now passed the Senate, 13-10, and the House, 219-142, but neither of those margins meets the two-thirds veto-proof threshold, and Sununu has been forthright about a veto.

Meanwhile, that alternative, opt-in, twin-state plan championed by Sununu and Scott? Not looking great. Not only did New Hampshire House Democrats paste over the enabling legislation in House Bill 2 when they passed the budget this week, but neither of the state’s public unions – whose members must agree to the plan to make it work – are on board.

Vermont’s public union rejected Scott’s plan early, painting it as a political maneuver.

“There was no question in our mind that the universal approach is better for us and better for our state, and that’s why we support it,” said Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, in a February interview. “The administration didn’t have answers to key questions. I think it’s more of a ploy than a plan.”

New Hampshire’s unions are harder to pin down. A spokeswoman for New Hampshire’s State Employees Association, which represents the bulk of public employees in the state, declined to comment on the SEA’s position this week. Contract negotiations between the state and that union are already at an impasse, and both sides are loath to tip their hands.

Sununu has stressed that the two-state proposal can still work as a one-state proposal if Vermont’s unions back out. And Matthew Newland, Sununu’s manager of employee relations and the chair of his bargaining team has said the plan is still very much in play as the two sides prepare to enter mediation on April 16.

“Our team put the governor’s paid family leave plan on the table, and it continues to be part of bargaining,” Newland said in a statement. “The unions have neither accepted nor rejected the plan at this point, and it is important to note that the current impasse is a result of disagreement on other issues.”

But chances look murky; union representatives have said in the past that they are more focused on negotiating pay raises and stronger health care benefits in the next contracts. Their top officials also backed a similar Democratic plan last year.

So are all three proposals rudderless, cast adrift until the next election creates more decisive control in one or both states? Well, not entirely.

Vermont Democratic Rep. Robin Scheu, the prime sponsor of H.107, says the fate of her party’s paid family leave plan has not been written yet. It moves now to the Democrat-controlled Senate, which she says has time to propose a compromise to satisfy those two dissenting votes in the House.

“We are two or three votes shy of an override,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “But I think that if we get to that point then we have a good chance of being able to override it.”

Scheu’s proposal is similar in many ways to the New Hampshire Democrats’ plan, with minor differences in premiums and pay-outs. The proposed mandatory program would be run through a private sector insurer, like New Hampshire’s, and would also allow a company to decide whether to deduct premiums from employees or pay them itself.

Scott has his own reservations, calling the proposal an “IT nightmare” in an interview with WCAX television.

But the political sticking point has long been on whether the program should be mandatory, and more actuarially stable, or voluntary, and more palatable to large employers. Both Republican governors have drawn clear lines.

New Hampshire Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, meanwhile, said he’s aware of the political stasis but is still advocating against a veto. A compromise is plausible during budget negotiations, but both sides have declared the other’s approach a non-starter.

“He has a concept,” Feltes said in an interview. “It’s not a plan.”

Amid the impasse, there are new indicators of what Granite Staters would want in a paid leave plan. A University of New Hampshire poll conducted in October 2018 and first released as part of a study this week found that 65% of respondents favored a mixed employer-employee premium contribution situation under a hypothetical plan.

The study, conducted by the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH, found that 56% of respondents lack access to a paid leave policy for parental leave and 63% don’t get extended paid time off for family care. That lack of access is most present in jobs that pay less than $600 a week and workplaces with fewer than 50 employees, the poll found.

That poll did not include a question about whether the program should be mandatory or voluntary, nor one on the popularity of paid family and medical leave to begin with – key considerations in the debate moving forward.

Still, Feltes is seeking to turn the pressure on the governor.

“If Gov. Sununu is not comfortable signing paid family and medical leave insurance for working families and small businesses of New Hampshire, the least he could do is let it become law without his signature,” he said.

For his part, Sununu – who points to an optional payroll deduction for companies as evidence the Democrats’ plan is an income tax – says he isn’t giving up.

“SB 1 is an income tax, and the people of New Hampshire will never support a budget that includes it,” he said in a statement Thursday. “I will continue to fight for my paid family medical leave plan – a truly voluntary plan that does not require an income tax.”

Breaking this stalemate – for either side – might take a statewide election.

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