Colorado Democratic senators pump brakes on paid family leave program

Senators had concerns about whether the proposed paid family leave program could pay for itself

A paid family leave rally at the state Capitol's west steps on April 9, 2019. Democrats hope to pass such a program in 2020. (Photo by John Herrick)

An internal split among Democratic senators scuttled lawmakers’ fifth attempt at passing a long sought-after paid family and medical leave program this legislative session.

Uncertainty about whether the proposed policy would be able to pay for itself left too many Democratic state senators, including those who support the concept, on the fence. Democrats control the Senate by just three votes. No Republicans were expected to support it.

Amid a scramble to rally enough votes and make last-minute changes in the waning weeks of the session, backers of the bill Wednesday culled their ambitions and instead offered a bill that would only study how much such a program would cost.

“I’m disappointed we couldn’t deliver the whole program,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat from Westminster who is sponsoring the bill. “But it’s still a step forward. We asked for two steps forward and we got one.”

Winter was among the many Democrats who campaigned for paid family leave. She and others were part of a wave of Democrats who swept control of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time since 2014. But one-party control wasn’t enough to get the policy across the finish line this year. Among Democratic lawmakers who said they had concerns was Sen. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs. He said he supports the concept of paid family leave, but wanted to see a bill passed that sets up a financially solvent and sustainable program. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who generally supports the idea, also said he had questions about whether the program would be financially sustainable.

The decision to hit pause was met with immediate condemnation from advocates and cheers from the business community, which had pushed back hard against the bill.

“[Democratic lawmakers] will keep listening to big corporations and not those of us on the ground who have been working for years on this policy,” Karla Gonzales Garcia, the policy director for COLOR, a group advocating for reproductive rights, said. “I don’t even know how to analyze that point. This was sexism. This was racism. This was classism.”

Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Brough said in a statement before lawmakers decided to amend the bill that it was simply “actuarially unsound.”

“We remain extremely concerned about the payroll tax this proposal will levy on employers and employees,” Brough said.

Winter was proposing a program that would have offered workers up to 12 weeks of partial paid time off to either care for themselves or their family members. The bill, SB-188, dubbed the FAMLI Act, short for Family and Medical Leave Insurance, proposed paying for the program by taking a percentage out of workers paychecks with a match from employers.

But there was much uncertainty about whether this premium would cover the estimated $1 billion cost of the benefit. Competing financial projections left several senators confused. One study by the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work found the program could be paid for within the scope of the bill. But a separate report by the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, a free-market think tank, found that “the risk of massive underfunding and financial failure is meaningful.”

“It all came down to math, ultimately,” Winter said. “One way to move forward is to actually do this implementation plan and come back next year with one set of numbers we all agree to.”

“In the short term, it’s a bummer. In the long term, the bill will be better,” said Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder who was supporting the bill. He added, “there were a few folks in the caucus that wanted to see some hard numbers before giving it a green light.”

There was a last-ditch effort to make some final tweaks to save money on the program, Winter said. But what was left was a shadow of what many Democrats promised to voters.

Backers of the bill already made several cuts to appease pushback from the business community. Those changes included giving businesses offering similar benefits the option to opt out and stripping job protections from seasonal employees that take advantage of the program. None of those changes brought the business chambers on board.

Further proposed cuts on the table would have exempted small businesses entirely from the program.

“We got to the point where the amendments we were being asked to run in order to pass the bill hurt the program too much. We didn’t think it was a good program any longer,” Winter said.

Ashley Panelli, an organizer with 9to5 Colorado, a workers’ advocacy group, said she was left wondering where Democrats’ values stand. She said some lawmakers make the false equivalency of cost to businesses and the life-or-death health of a family member.

“These are not the same thing,” Panelli said. 

If lawmakers decide to pass a bill next year, the timeline for implementation would still be the same as the original bill, Winter said. Workers would still begin paying premiums in 2023 with benefits rolling out in 2024.