Irritation, frustration emerge at Granite State Paid Family Leave repeal hearing
No answers provided to questions about cost of governor’s plan
This time, Sununu administration officials showed up at a hearing to defend the governor’s Granite State Paid Family Leave program, though they didn’t have much to say about a bill to repeal it. And most of the senators on the Commerce Committee didn’t have much to ask on Tuesday either.
If House Bill 1165 becomes law, it would put an end to the program just as it was being implemented. Indeed, as the hearing took place, the state was in the process of fielding questions for a request of proposals that have been out for two weeks now.
The paid family leave program would piggyback on a taxpayer-funded benefit given to the state’s over 11,000 employees, using generous business tax credits to entice employers to participate and subsidized low rates to get individuals to sign on. The insurance would pay 60 percent of wages for up to six weeks to take care of a family member or oneself.
Last year, there wasn’t even a hearing on the program in either chamber because it was tucked into last year’s budget at the last minute. The Senate put it in the budget at the request of Gov. Chris Sununu, although and House members removed it, but in the conference committee, the governor insisted it be included, said Rep. Jess Edwards, R-Auburn.
“It was so important to the governor. It was dramatically more important to him than to our House,” said Edwards. “I didn’t like the process adding that he was “ambivalent about a repeal.”
House members objected to it because of the uncertainty of the cost and because it would interfere with the free market.
“This cost is not guaranteed to stay within the rosy forecast by proponents, and taxpayers will be on the hook for the increased costs,” said Rep. Andrew Prout, R-Hudson, sponsor of the repeal bill. The program would “grant de facto monopoly status to the winner of the state (request for proposals) … and end all competition in the short-term disability family leave marketplace.”
Prout added that an “unnegotiated free gift to state employees will not go unnoticed by county and local government employees. This program will metastasize, and local government will be left holding the bag.”
Rep. Len Turcottte, R-Barrington, noted that Republicans in the House overwhelmingly voted against the program, while Democrats backed it. Despite it being pushed by a Republican governor, “this is not a Republican an issue. It’s a very liberal issue.”
One plan has been filed with the NH Insurance Department to offer a family leave program unrelated to the state program, and it would be frozen out by a subsidized plan. Insurance officials said it was a much different product.
The department is “very excited” about the program because it is a “New Hampshire-based solution. It’s free market,” testified Insurance Commissioner Chris Nikolopoulos, who had skipped the House hearings, although he did plead for the program before front the House Labor Committee just before members voted for repeal.
This time, he was not alone. He was followed by two deputy commissioners, Catherine Keane of the Department of Administrative Services, which is evaluating the RFP, and Richard Lavers, from the Department of Employment Security.
Keane didn’t say how many potential bidders are interested and what the cost would be. She said that those questions will only be answered when the bids come in. The RFP from insurers is due May 9. A separate bid, to market the program, is due May 2. The program is scheduled to go live on Jan. 1.
“Show me the money,” said Sen. William Gannon, R-Sandown. “There must be someone who will give us an idea of what this is going to cost.”
“We don’t know. That’s why it’s out for bid,” said Keane.
“I’m kind of mad of myself for passing this last year,” said Gannon.
Lavers made a pitch for the program. Nothing that 44 percent of the 14,000 people who moved to the state were between the childrearing ages of 25 and 34, he said, “We see this as another opportunity for employers to use as an incentive to keep this workforce.”
“It’s a great resource for getting people moving in, to grab some of those people,” agreed Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, D-Manchester.
But aside from that, most of the senators didn’t give an indication of how they would vote on the repeal.