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Connecticut Senate passes paid family and medical leave but Lamont promises veto if changes aren’t made

Connecticut Senate passes paid family and medical leave but Lamont promises veto if changes aren’t made
Gov. Ned Lamont has promised to veto paid family and medical leave legislation to open a path for private involvement in running a leave program. (Michael McAndrews / Hartford Courant)

The state Senate Wednesday passed legislation that would establish paid family and medical leave in Connecticut but Gov. Ned Lamont has promised to veto the bill, insisting that businesses have a role in seeking to run the benefits program.

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A veto might not kill the measure, which has the governor’s support on its fundamental intent. Senate Democrats have called it their No. 1 priority and the Senate passed the bill by a 21-15 vote around 9 p.m. after six and a half hours of debate. All Democrats except Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury voted in favor.

However, Lamont’s disapproval complicates passage two weeks before the General Assembly is set to adjourn June 5.

"I want to make sure it’s a process where we invite the best and the brightest to bid on this,” the governor told reporters in his Capitol office earlier Wednesday. “Folks who have done it before, be they out of the private sector, public sector, DOL,” he said, referring to the state Department of Labor.

“I will veto the bill as currently written,” he said.

Lamont elaborated in a written statement issued soon after the vote.

“At the same time that we are trying to streamline state government to make it more efficient for our residents and businesses, we should not tie the hands of the quasi-public agency that will have to oversee and implement what is essentially a $400 million dollar start-up company,” he said. “The families waiting for these vital benefits cannot afford another healthcare.gov. We need to make sure this program is solvent, efficiently administered and nimble enough to adapt and adjust as needed, particularly in its first few, crucial years. I don’t believe the legislation, as currently drafted, will allow for that.”

Lamont endorsed the broad outlines of the $400 million program that would pay workers for up to 12 weeks’ leave for medical attention or to care for a newborn or family member. It would be financed by a half-percent payroll tax.

“We’ve been negotiating in good faith with the legislature ... for some time,” he said. “And I don’t think we’re there. I was really surprised to see they’re running the bill in the state Senate.”

The state is proposing to establish a “big, new insurance program led by a top-heavy bureaucracy” with 13 to 15 officials and the right to a minority to veto policy, Lamont said.

“It just looks like it’s not a recipe for success to me,” he said.

The governor said he does not quarrel with the intent of the legislation.

“It’s an important bill that I believe in,” Lamont said. "Makes a difference for this state. Makes a difference for those parents, single parents and makes a difference for small business. But you’ve got to do it the way that makes sure the taxpayers have confidence we’re doing it right.

“There’s a lot of skepticism about government running programs. I hear that wherever I go. And I’m going to do everything I can to make this bold, new item something that people have confidence we’ll get right.”

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Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, called the legislation a “core value of the Democratic Party” and said the Senate had to pass the bill and send it to the House.

“Otherwise it just remains in the realm of theory or the ether somewhere as speculation,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Republicans would vote to uphold Lamont’s veto.

“In the governor’s own words, the proposal Democrats have offered today is not a recipe for success. It is top heavy with bureaucracy,” he said.

Lamont said he and Senate Democratic leaders agree on provisions that would give taxpayers “some guarantee” that if the finances don’t add up, the state will not raise the half-percent tax and that “upper benefits” would be reduced.

“We’ve negotiated that,” Lamont said. “That all makes sense. But I think right now with this top-heavy bureaucracy it doesn’t give us the best chance of success.”

Lamont said he would not negotiate in public specific changes, but that he’d prefer a proposal with fewer officials involved in the decision-making and a process that gives the private and public sectors an opportunity to seek to run the program.

“I hope that once the budget is behind us, the legislature will be willing to continue our productive conversations around how to start up this important program in a way that offers the best user experience at the lowest cost to beneficiaries and taxpayers,” Lamont said in his written statement.

Sen. Julie Kushner, a Danbury Democrat and co-chair of the legislature’s labor committee, said legislative leaders and representatives of Lamont “spent hours and hours” working on issues related to the administration of a paid family and medical leave program.

“And I believe that we have accommodated them in many, many ways," she said. “We have gotten different proposals at different times. We have not gotten anything in the last few days.”

The legislation that passed Wednesday includes a provision for requests for proposals for initial claims processing and database development, Kushner said.

The Connecticut Business & Industry Association, the state’s largest business advocacy group, praised Lamont for his veto threat. Businesses, in particular small companies, have opposed the legislation, saying they could not easily replace workers for short spells of up to 12 weeks.

And they criticize the payroll tax as another burden on top of a higher minimum wage of $15 an hour approved last week by the General Assembly and awaiting Lamont’s promised signature.

“We certainly applaud him for pumping the brakes on this,” said Eric Gjede, a lobbyist for CBIA.

Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, which is working to enact paid family and medical leave, said Lamont’s team and Democrats had hammered out a compromise.

“Out of nowhere he decides to threaten a veto. It’s kind of reckless,” she said.

Public employees have criticized privatizing a paid family and medical leave program. Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said in April the program should be administered by the Department of Labor, which serves the public, “not private shareholders.”

Looney said the legislation initially called for the state Department of Labor to administer the program and that Lamont insisted it be changed to include a quasi-public entity. The governor then shifted, emphasizing an option for insurance companies to bid on the process, he said.

“But we see those frankly as peripheral issues,” Looney said. “The important core of the bill is to get the benefit to the people.”

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Stephen Singer can be reached at ssinger@courant.com.

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