September 30, 2007 in City

Lawmakers working out details of paid family leave

Richard Roesler Staff writer
 

On the Web

For more state government news, please see our Eye on Olympia blog at www.eyeonolympia.com.

OLYMPIA – A simple idea – giving parents a $250-a-week stipend when they take time off to bond with a new child – is proving pretty complex to carry out.

That was the upshot of a recent two-hour meeting in Olympia at which state lawmakers struggled to flesh out the details of the Family Medical Leave program they approved last spring.

One preliminary estimate suggests that program, slated to start in 2009, would give out between $23 million and $47 million a year in benefits paid to new parents. The same estimate, prepared by the state Employment Security Department, pegs the administrative cost at between $6 million and $9 million a year. In other words, somewhere between 11 percent and 28 percent of the cost of the program would be administration.

And although state lawmakers have agreed to tap a state account to jump-start the program, it remains unclear how they’ll pay for it over the long term.

“That’s an unusual way to legislate,” said a skeptical state Rep. Cary Condotta, R-East Wenatchee.

For now, lawmakers are still wrestling with which state agency – or agencies – will run the program. Washington is just the second state, after California, to offer payments to parents who take their federally-allowed time off from work to bond with a newborn or newly adopted child.

“I predicted this program would be the bureaucratic acorn that grows into a mighty oak tree,” said Kris Tefft, with the Association of Washington Business.

Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, fought hard to pass the plan this spring. The first weeks with a child are a critical time for a family, they said. But since the federal law only mandates unpaid leave, many families are unable to afford the loss of a paycheck to bond with their newborns while others endure financial hardship. Washington’s $250 a week for up to five weeks is intended to help offset those financial hardships.

To reinforce that message, the group Moms Rising handed out little potted trees to lawmakers Wednesday. Each tree bore a note reading: “Thank you for helping Washington families grow stronger.”

Republican lawmakers – many of whom opposed the plan – are clearly unhappy at the potential administrative costs.

“Is this or could this ever be sustainable?” asked state Sen. Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake. “…That’s still an overwhelming question that comes back to me.”

But Democrats said the program’s a done deal, and they’re confident that the details can be worked out.

“The Legislature has made the decision,” state Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, told Holmquist. “We are going to have a family leave program. That’s not on the table.”

Dickerson said she’s optimistic that lawmakers will “find our way through this.”

Spokane businessman Curt Fackler urged lawmakers to keep things simple. The state should simply cut a check – say $750, or $1,250 – to any Washington family that sends in a birth certificate or adoption papers for a new child, so long as they can show they’ve been in-state for a year.

Fackler’s solution would solve one criticism of the employment-based program: that it ignores stay-at-home parents, who would get no benefit.

And to pay for it, Fackler said, the state should take a small slice out of sales taxes. After all, he argues, a family adding a child will almost certainly pay more in sales tax– and the federal government and 40 other states give tax credits for children.

“We’re not growing government, we’re shrinking government,” said Fackler, who is also Spokane County GOP chairman. “We’re giving the money back to the people who paid it.”

Early versions of the new law this spring had all employers and employees splitting the cost of the family benefit, or maybe just employees. Legislators will meet again in Olympia next month to discuss how to pay for the program.

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