Republicans vote to repeal Sununu’s paid family leave bill

But some remain skeptical if it will come to pass
Sununu Presser

All the Republicans on the House Labor committee voted Wednesday to repeal Governor Chris Sununu’s voluntary paid family leave weeks before it was to go out to bid. And that was enough to overcome the Democrats’ unanimous, if not enthusiastic, attempt to save it.

The 11-10 vote to repeal was the first up-and-down, standalone vote on the plan, which was passed as part of last year’s budget. It came despite the pleas of Insurance Commissioner Chris Nikolopoulos, the first time any state agency testified to defend the plan at public hearing.  No state official showed for the hearing on this bill — HB 1165 — and another repeal bill which the Commerce Committee recommended go to interim study, HB 1582.

“Nobody at the department was at the hearings. Why in the last minute are we hearing from you now?” asked Andrew Prout, R-Hudson and the prime sponsor of the bill.

“I apologize.  I wrongly assumed other people would be at the hearing,” said Nikolopoulos, who added, “It’s clear I want this product to succeed.”

Nikolopoulos was drilled on the plan, who called it a “phenomenal compromise” since it offered the benefit to everyone without mandating universal participation.   The governor’s plan was an alternative to a mandatory proposal — similar to plans other states adopted — passed by a Democratic legislature, which Sununu vetoed.  Sununu called the half percent payroll deduction from all workers to pay for it an income tax.

The governor’s plan would piggyback on family leave benefit provided to the state’s 11,000 employees at taxpayers’ expense, provided by an insurance company selected by the state among those who respond to a Request for Proposal due to go out at the end of this month.  The program itself is supposed to start at the end of the year.

Employers who wish to participate would get half of their outlay reimbursed by credit against business taxes.  Individual’s rates would be capped at $5 a week, subsidized — if necessary — by earmarking the insurance tax paid by the provider to the program.

No state has tried anything like this.

“I believe we are blazing the path here,” said Nikolopoulos, but that didn’t seem to excite members of either party. Republicans wanted to know how much this would cost the state, answers that the commissioner couldn’t provide until after the RFP process was completed, and then after several years of experience.

“We’ve been hearing how critical this program is, that people want it. Once we get this program off the ground, we are going to see if they actually get it,” he said.

But Republican members were skeptical.  Rep. Leonard Turcotte, R-Barrington, thought that no company would want it because it would be priced so high, and the only individuals who would want it are those that know they were going to use it, pushing the price higher.  Instead, the towns and school employees who would want to be on par with their state counterparts would push for it.

Rep. Will Infintine, R-Manchester, the chair and the deciding vote on the committee, said his phone has been “ringing off the hook” on the repeal bill.  He said that while there is a lot to like in the program, “I don’t like to commit to things when I don’t know how much it is going to cost.”

Complicating matters, a private insurer has filed with the state Insurance Department to offer a family and medical leave policy after the Governor’s proposal was signed into law. Nikolopoulos said that the plan was not equal to the governor’s plan, because it did not offer short-term disability for the worker (though the company does offer that separately) and would not be eligible for the tax breaks.

Several lawmakers contended this was another reason to support repeal.

“The governor’s plan on FMLI has already worked.  Private insurance companies are looking to offer this,” said Prout.  “This state plan with its new cost is unnecessary to achieve the original goal.”

Prout added, “I’m also concerned with the tax breaks for this program, with a single company getting the contract, will create an effective monopoly preventing any other company from entering the market.”

Democrats opposed the repeal but halfheartedly.

“I don’t like this plan,” said Rep. Joshua Adjutant, D-Enfield. “If I were to write the FMLI plan, it wouldn’t look like this.”

He ticked off what he considered the plans shortcomings.  It wasn’t universal.  Individuals could only take advantage of it at the behest of the employers (at least for smaller companies that don’t have family and medical leave protection ensuring that they will get their job back).  Sixty percent of income isn’t enough.  (That was what was originally offered in the vetoed plan, but many states have increased that percentage since.)  Adjutant compared it to the Affordable Care Act, which also had faults.  “I don’t think repeal is the answer,” he said.  The point isn’t to “scrap a weak plan but to make it better.”

Or as Sullivan put it: “I believe that any paid family medical leave plan is better than no paid family leave plan.”

The committee vote may be embarrassing to Sununu, because it amounted to rejection of one his signature programs by his own party, but it doesn’t mean his plan is dead.  Far from it.  The vote now goes to the full House, where Sununu might have enough Republican backers on his side to overcome the rest of his party and offset any Democrats who might vote to repeal his plan because it didn’t go far enough.

Repeal might get a chillier reception in the Senate, who put FMLI into the budget trailer in the first place and insisted that it would stay there. Even if the repeal plan passes both chambers, there will probably not be enough vote to overcome a likely veto.

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