MONTPELIER — The Vermont House of Representatives on Thursday voted to approve a paid family leave program for the entire state, but the legislation didn’t get quite enough votes to overcome a potential governor’s veto.
After a joint conference committee of select senators and representatives agreed to compromises in H.107, the House chamber considered the bill and passed it 89-58, but not without significant debate.
The bill’s next stop will be the governor’s desk, where it faces a likely veto from Gov. Phil Scott. The governor has said he opposes the program because it raises funding through a mandatory 0.2% payroll tax paid by employees.
Rep. Tom Stevens, D-Waterbury, introduced the bill to fellow lawmakers.
“We’re here today to discuss a proposal that will bring the benefit of paid medical leave to an extraordinary number of Vermonters who currently do not have access to such a policy at this time, for an individual cost that is more than reasonable,” he said.
According to the agreement hatched by the committee, H.107 includes eight weeks off to care for a family member and 12 weeks off for parent-child bonding with a newborn.
“They determined that the wage replacement should reflect 90 percent of an employee’s wages, up to 55 percent of Vermont’s average weekly wage, which is a figure easily accessible through the Department of Labor,” Stevens said.
The program is expected to cost $29 million.
One of the staunchest opponents of the bill was Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington.
“To propose a new tax to create a new entitlement program does not seem appropriate to me when we face such challenges, particularly when we are in the middle of one of the longest economic expansions ever experienced but Vermont’s revenues are not growing quickly,” she said.
She suggested giving people a choice rather than forcing them into it.
“It would be better to set up a voluntary program in which everyone was automatically enrolled but they can opt-out,” she said.
Rep. Scott Beck, R-St. Johnsbury, reminded House members that an alternative, voluntary plan has already been put forward.
“Our cost of living is above the national average, our wages are average, our taxes are high,” he said. ” … The governor has proposed a voluntary plan that would cover all state workers and would cover all other workers if they cared to join. I think we would be very wise to pursue that option instead of digging into Vermonters’ pockets for another $30 million.”
Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, said she wouldn’t support the bill because it’s not ambitious enough.
“Those of us who are opposing this bill today because we feel it doesn’t go far enough are not purists who are set against any compromise,” she said. “In fact, we’ve supported compromise after compromise in this bill along the way, and I can’t speak for others, but when I look at where we are now I regret supporting some of those compromises.”
Rep. Tommy Walz, D-Barre, also thinks the bill doesn’t go far enough. He’s still willing to support it, and he shared a story about one of his daughters who was born in Germany in 1973, and his wife received 16 weeks of full paid leave to care for their child.
“A completely different system 47 years ago, I want to make that point,” he said. “So, this bill doesn’t even match what I received 47 years ago. It doesn’t come close, but that’s not a reason for rejecting it.”
Rep. James Carroll, D-Bennington, shared a story about how he wished there was a paid leave program when his parents were sick years ago.
“I came back to Vermont in ’03, and as fate would have it, both of my parents took a precipitous turn for the worst in their health,” he said.
He explained that the rest of his siblings were scattered about with families of their own, so he was the only one in position to move in with the parents to care for them during their final days.
“Now this bill would give peace of mind to every Vermonter who has a sick mother or father or wants to bond with their child or has an ailing relative; it will give them a certain level of peace of mind that they don’t have now,” he said.
Rep. Anne Donahue, R-Northfield, praised the idea of offering paid medical leave for Vermonters, but added that Vermont has more pressing issues, such as high health insurance premiums.
“We have a high rate of underinsurance, people that are buying at a relatively high cost, and yet who can’t have their healthcare needs met because of the cost of their deductibles and co-pays,” she said. ” … So the real question for us is to consider [is this]: What else could $29 million buy if it were not being used to support a very positive public policy around the paid leave?”