Ignoring clash with Lamont, Senate passes family leave

Setting aside the 11th-hour threat of a gubernatorial veto, the state Senate voted 21-15 Wednesday night to pass a Democratic bill that would create a paid family and medical leave insurance policy, a step toward a long-sought goal of labor progressives.

Passage ignited a celebration in the Senate chamber and gallery, but its final path to becoming law requires a victory in the House and the passage of a separate bill addressing Gov. Ned Lamont’s demand that the measure must be revised to encourage private insurers to bid on the new line of business.

The disagreement with the governor was largely ignored during the debate of six-plus hours, a tactical decision by Democrats, who focused on their common ground with the governor, leaving for another day what separates them.

“The really good news here is that we agree — with the governor, with the House — on the fundamental elements of this bill,” Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, said before the debate began. “This bill will provide working families with time off to take care of their kids with wage replacement, so that they don’t have to pick between their family members and a paycheck.”

Kushner, a former UAW leader who unseated a conservative Republican last year and is now co-chair of the legislature’s Labor and Public Employee Committee, pumped her fist toward allies in the gallery upon passage, then accepted the hugs of colleagues.

The debate in the Senate explored a deeper clash of philosophies in the legislature, pitting a Democratic commitment to replicating a new social benefit available in neighboring states and most industrialized nations against a Republican call to trust in the free markets and goodwill of private employers.

Sen. Joan V. Hartley, D-Waterbury, was the only Democrat to vote with the Republican minority.

The result was dictated by the 2018 elections, in which Democrats made their first state legislative gains since 2008, regaining solid control of the General Assembly. After two years of a closely divided legislature, the Democrats now have majorities of 22-14 in the Senate and 91-50 in the House.

The Democratic plan would provide 12 weeks of wage replacement to nearly every private-sector worker who falls ill or needs to care for a family member, including the poorest of the working poor, the men and women who juggle minimum-wage jobs that often provide no benefits.

But Republicans note those workers would have no choice in purchasing that coverage at a annual cost of $156 for minimum-wage workers and a maximum of $664.50 for those with six-figure incomes. Those premiums would be paid by a payroll tax on workers of one-half of 1 percent.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said the Democrats’ message is “Let us control your life.”

Veto threat

Earlier in the day, the governor's quietly simmering argument with labor progressives over the appropriate role of private insurers boiled over with a dramatic veto threat as the Senate prepared to debate the issue.

“Right now, this is a bill that I cannot support and will not support,” Lamont told reporters at a hastily called midday news conference in his office, while senators gathered one floor above. “It doesn’t mean we can’t get there. It doesn’t mean we can’t get there in the next week or more likely get there in the next month.”

The Senate opened debate on the bill at 2:12 p.m., but its leadership portrayed that as an act of necessity, not defiance. With only two weeks left in the session and Republicans opposed, they said the Senate needs to pass and get the bill to the House. Lamont’s concerns still could be addressed in another bill before the session ends at midnight June 5, avoiding a veto of a measure that was central to the governor’s campaign and his support by labor.

In a statement after the Senate's passage Wednesday night, Lamont said his commitment "to enacting paid family and medical leave has never wavered."

Despite that the program would make the state more attractive to families, the governor stressed that as "we are trying to streamline state government to make it more efficient for our residents and businesses, we should not tie the hands of the quasi-public agency that will have to oversee and implement what is essentially a $400 million dollar start-up company. The families waiting for these vital benefits cannot afford another healthcare.gov."

"We need to make sure this program is solvent, efficiently administered and nimble enough to adapt and adjust as needed, particularly in its first few, crucial years. I don’t believe the legislation, as currently drafted, will allow for that," Lamont said. He said he hopes the legislature will be willing to continue productive conversations around how to start "this important program in a way that offers the best user experience at the lowest cost to beneficiaries and taxpayers."

"I remain committed to bringing paid family and medical leave benefits to Connecticut’s workers,” he said.

A failure by Lamont and the Democrats to resolve their differences could have broader implications as the administration is seeking support for highway tolls, while blocking legislative progressives from seeking higher taxes on capital gains accrued by the rich, single taxpayers earning at least $500,000 and couples making $1 million.

Sliding benefits scale

The Democrats’ bill would place Connecticut in the ranks of states, including neighboring New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, to mandate a form of disability insurance.

If it becomes law, benefits would become payable on July 1, 2021.

Payroll subjected to the new tax would be based on the amount of annual earnings subject to Social Security taxes, currently $132,900. Benefits would be calculated on a sliding scale, according to income.

A worker earning $600 a week would receive benefits equal to 95 percent of wages, or $570. The rationale is that someone working close to minimum wage could not afford to take leave without getting close to current wages.

According to calculations by Senate Democrats, the replacement wages at other weekly income levels would go lower for higher earners: 80 percent for someone making $1,040; 70 percent for $1,280; 61 percent for $1,480; and 56 percent for $1,600.

Total weekly compensation could not exceed 60 times the minimum wage. With a $15 minimum wage expected to take effect in 2023, that would yield a maximum weekly benefit of $3,600.

Mark Pazniokas is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (www.ctmirror.org). Copyright 2019 © The Connecticut Mirror.

mpazniokas@ctmirror.org

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