Scaled-back paid leave plan clears tax committee

MONTPELIER — The House Ways and Means Committee passed a paid parental and family leave bill Thursday that would provide six weeks of paid time off to Vermonters, but the bill still faces long odds.

The committee’s version of the paid leave legislation was drastically scaled back from what the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee passed earlier this year. That committee’s version, which was sought by interest groups, included 12 weeks of 100 percent paid time off and a 0.93 percent payroll tax, which raise about $80 million to pay for the benefits.

The Ways and Means Committee version passed Thursday — on a 7 to 4 vote — offers six weeks of paid time off and includes a 0.141 percent payroll tax on the first $150,000 of wages. It will cost about $17 million per year. Workers who use the paid time off benefit would receive up to 80 percent of wages capped at $1,040 per week.

Joyce Manchester, a senior analyst with the Legislature’s nonpartisan Joint Fiscal Office, said a “sophisticated micro simulation model” was used to determine how many Vermonters would take advantage of parental or family leave if it was available, and how much each worker would need to contribute to the insurance pool for the state to provide such a benefit.

According to Manchester, a paid time off program offering up to six weeks would lead to 6,341 Vermonters using parental leave and 12,537 people using family leave. The payroll tax needed to support the program based on wages up to a $150,000 cap was 0.141 percent, she said.

The economic model used to determine how the program would look in Vermont used the experiences of states that already have such programs, Manchester said.

Rep. George Till, D-Jericho, a strong proponent of implementing a paid leave program, said he was happy with the results of the economic model.

“I think this is really good news. I really think that this is a much more affordable program than we were talking about in the beginning,” he said. “I think that these numbers are really much better than what we had started with.”

The four members of the committee who opposed the bill, Republican Reps. Kurt Wright of Burlington and Bill Canfield of Fair Haven, and Democratic Reps. Cynthia Browning of Arlington and Jim Condon of Colchester, offered an amendment to study the issue to determine if the program could include a choice for Vermonters to opt in to the program.

Rep. Cynthia Browning

Browning said the Ways and Means Committee took the original proposal and “improved it tremendously.” Still, Browning said there are lingering questions and she feared that the program would be expanded in the future and cost Vermonters significantly more.

Condon said the proposal is “a noble goal” but is likely to be vetoed by Republican Gov. Phil Scott if and when it reaches the governor’s desk. He urged passage of the amendment so a program could be crafted that Scott might support.

“If you’re really interesting in seeing this happen then saddling this with a mandatory tax is going to make it, in my opinion, unlikely,” Condon said. “That being the case, let’s try to do something that really can happen.”

Wright said he, too, believes “the governor will not sign a bill like this.” He said the committee is “missing the boat by not looking at something the governor is more likely to support.”

The amendment failed on a 4 to 7 vote.

Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, the chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, said the changes the committee made to the original proposal were enough to win her support.

“We have worked on this a lot and I appreciate everyone’s contribution,” Ancel said. “I would have had a hard tome supporting a bill with a 0.93 percent payroll tax no matter what the benefits were.”

Rep. Janet Ancel

Ancel said the payroll tax passed by her committee is low and did not lead to major concern from employer groups. She said if the bill stalls lawmakers could still return to study the proposal.

The bill will now head to the House Appropriations Committee for its consideration. If it passes that committee it could go to a vote by the full House. It is unlikely, however, that the Senate will take the measure up this year. And Scott has promised to veto any paid leave bill that includes a tax on Vermonters.

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