By Richard S. Davis
Our state’s celebrated paid family leave law takes center stage in Olympia again this year. The measure, passed in 2007 with benefits scheduled to begin in 2009, has yet to take effect. It’s doubtful it ever will. Still its supporters take pride in Washington being one of three states (along with California and New Jersey) offering paid family leave, albeit only in theory.
The law specifies benefits of $250 per week for up to five weeks to workers taking time off as new parents. When it passed I called it a prime example of long-use politics: Gather the fans for a photo-op, light the fuse and leave before things blow.
The ceremony is held whenever legislators adopt lofty goals to be achieved sometime after the next election: every child a math whiz, the end of fossil fuels, toxin-free salmon in every pot. It’s the celebration of an unfulfilled promise.
In the world of long fuses, paid family leaves stands apart. The flame was lit and swiftly extinguished. The fuse lengthened, reattached. Supporters pledge to do better, later, and the uncertainty continues.
When the law passed, the state treasury held a hefty reserve and the coming recession was only dimly perceived. Gov. Chris Gregoire said, “These are good times, these are exciting times.”
That is, they were times of unsustainable spending. Yet even in that frothy bubble, lawmakers launched paid family leave with no funding plan and no administrative structure.
The task force appointed to find the money had no success and suggested tapping the general state budget. But by the end of 2008, good times turned bad; there was nothing to tap.
In 2009, the Legislature pushed the start date for benefits to 2012. Then, in 2011, they kicked it ahead to 2015. In December Gregoire proposed another suspension. Gov. Jay Inslee’s spokesman says the governor supports the concept, but that the state can’t afford it now.
The majority coalition in the state Senate thinks it’s time to end the charade by repealing the law. The law’s supporters also want to end the charade; they want to fund an expanded program.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, sponsored the repeal bill.
“It’s clear we don’t have the money to pay for it,” he says, acknowledging it may have been a good idea.
As backers of repeal point out, federal law already protects workers’ right to take up to 12 weeks off, with health benefits, for family and medical reasons.
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, wants to inflate the promise. Her proposed legislation provides a weekly benefit of up to $1,000 for 12 weeks to care for a new child or sick family member. Employer and employees would share the cost of a premium to fund the program. She estimates it would cost $1 per week for a $50,000 earner, doubling in three years when disability benefits are added. Leading House Democrats support the expansion.
Usually, mission creep occurs after a program demonstrates success. Here the leap to creep occurs while the program sits on the runway.
The move to expand entitlements runs counter to the trend in most states. Walter Russell Mead, who has written extensively about the decline of the “blue social model,” says its costs render it a relic of the past, making the red-blue division less relevant.
“There’s no going back to blue, and using public resources to prop up the old system is a waste of those resources and a hurtful diversion from the need to figure out what we do next,” he writes.
States, unlike the federal government, confront fiscal realities with an immediacy that cannot long be finessed. Budgets must balance. Even the bluest cities and states, Mead notes, have been cutting unsustainable pensions and benefits and reducing their workforces.
The transition to what’s next he sees as “a time of adventure, innovation and creativity.”
Less encumbered by bureaucracy and politics, business owners have been responding to global competitive pressures and transformative economic and demographic changes for decades. They know how to attract, retain and reward good employees. Rather than impose new, costly and inflexible regulations on them, lawmakers should encourage them to innovate. Provide incentives, possibly, but scrap the paid family leave mandate.
Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org