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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Eye On Olympia

Are you willing to pay $40 a year for a family medical leave stipend you might someday need? House and Senate lawmakers hope so…

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In 2007, jubilant Democratic lawmakers approved $250-a-week stipends to workers who take unpaid time off to bond with a new baby.

Two years, later without paying anyone a dime, paid family medical leave has stalled. Gov. Chris Gregoire halted computer work on it to save money. And no one agrees how to pay for the estimated $40 million annual payout.

But they may be getting closer. Lawmakers in the House and Senate are now calling for a 2-cents-an-hour fee on all workers, with the money used to pay the stipend. And the benefit wouldn’t just apply to parents. Anyone with a sick family member could use it.

For a full-time worker, the fee works out to about $40 a year.

“If you’re going to ask everyone to pay, then everyone has to benefit,” said state Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, who introduced one of the bills Wednesday. “It’s just fairness.”

Critics say it’s a terrible time to take more money out of workers’ paychecks. But Keiser and other proponents argue that never has such a safety net for families been more needed.

“People are afraid of losing their jobs,” she said. “When you have a newborn with a heart condition or a spouse with cancer, you’re going to have a terrible dilemma.”

The stipend, she said, would help people pay some of the bills while caring for their family. The maximum benefit would be $1,250.

“This will answer fears and help family security,” she said.

The House version, from Rep. Mary Lou Dickerson, D-Seattle, would require voters to approve the 2-cents-an-hour charge at a statewide election in November. The Senate version wouldn’t include a vote.

The battle this year is likely to come in the House, which balked at early proposals to charge workers the hourly fee. And Gov. Chris Gregoire has in the past suggested that the matter go to a public vote.

Because the money is considered a fee, not a tax, Keiser says she doesn’t think a statewide vote is mandatory. Besides, she said, it would be costly, require a campaign and delay things.

But if it goes on the ballot, she said, she’s confident.

“I’m not afraid of a public vote,” she said.

To pay for the roughly $12 million startup costs, she said, the state could borrow from its pension funds. But lawmakers are hoping for a grant from the Obama administration, which has voiced support for such state programs.

Republican lawmakers have criticized the program as unnecessary, saying that some employers continue paying workers while they take family medical leave. At least two bills have been introduced to do away with part or all of the program.

“We think that it would be irresponsible to do anything other than repeal this program,” said Kris Tefft, general counsel for the Association of Washington Business. “I don’t know that a new tax, no matter how modest it’s argued to be, is in the public interest right now.”

Although the payments would initially come from workers, Tefft predicts that collective bargaining will quickly shift those costs onto employers in many cases.

If the proposal is approved this session, Keiser said, she hopes payments can begin within 18 months.

UPDATE: Under initiative 960, the proposal could trigger a public vote requirement even if it's called a fee, according to I-960 author Tim Eyman.

The measure, he said, includes a provision saying that the Attorney General's office must weigh in on such proposals, decideding whether the increase -- regardless of what lawmakers call it -- is really a tax. If so, an increase means a public vote.

"This doesn't even pass the straight face test," said Eyman. "They're trying to call it one thing when it's clearly a tax on everybody."

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.