Last weekend came news reports and another derisory editorial (blogged about here) about the lack of funding this year for our state's paid family leave benefit and mandate. Friday's news of the $423 million downturn in revenue projection almost guarantees funding the benefit this session will be off the table -- and much more difficult in 2009. Even though the benefit is supposed to go online in October of 2009, the next legislature will face by current estimates a structural deficit exceeding $2 billion.
Today, the Tacoma News Tribune's editorial page joined the fray, with the tart observation that the program is now "an empty promise" and that:
The responsible thing to do would be to delay the start date, but then legislators might have to admit that they haven’t made the hard choices that are required. Better to take credit for a popular social program that has no natural enemies because no one has been asked to pay for it yet.
But as long as the Legislature procrastinates, family leave remains an empty promise — and lawmakers cannot legitimately claim they ensured that mothers and fathers don’t have to choose between paying the bills and bonding with their child.
In addition to the issue of funding, without which there is no "paid" in paid family leave, confusion also seems to be swirling around the state of the two administrative implementation bills, HB 3305 and SB 6280 this session.
Although one or both will probably move by Tuesday's house-of-origin cutoff, for the time-honored purpose of "keeping the discussion going," we have not observed in this year's project the same degree of imperative or urgency among proponents that animated the passage of last year's bill.
The biggest loser in the swirl of uncertainty is the Employment Security Department, the agency all sides by now seem to agree ought to administer the program -- if it ought to be administered at all. Without funding the "paid" part of paid family leave, after all, there is really no need for a new program.
State (and federal) family leave law already grants time off to new parents for the birth or adoption of a child. Stripped of its promise of a meager $250 per week for five weeks of that time off, all last year's bill did was moderately expand the right to time off from employees of employers of 50 or more to employees of employers of 25 or more, albeit for only 6 weeks, rather than the twelve weeks FMLA employers must grant.
A more promising approach at this point would be to junk the large, bureaucratic, social-insurance mandate approach, consolidate the leave policy under our state's existing laws, and provide economic incentives to employers to make as much of that time off as possible paid time off.