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Sunday, April 1, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Legislature 2007

Paid-family-leave bill in doubt

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA -- A bill to give Washington workers up to five weeks of paid family medical leave is clinging to life in the state House, where it has run into an onslaught of opposition from business lobbyists.

While the Legislature's Democratic leaders rave about the proposal, there are signs they might balk at passing it and instead put the controversial issue up for a statewide referendum next fall.

Supporters dislike the idea of turning the issue over to voters because they fear national business groups would pour money into a campaign to kill what would be one of the nation's most generous paid-family-leave laws.

"It would be a huge, expensive fight," said Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute, a liberal public-policy think tank. "This would be seen as a national referendum on this issue."

The legislation passed the Democrat-controlled Senate last month. But it stalled last week in the House Appropriations Committee, where a similar measure died two years ago. Business lobbyists have been targeting a handful of moderate Democrats on the panel, urging them to block the bill.

Unable to come up with enough votes, committee leaders Saturday kept the measure alive by stripping out the details and passing just the bill's title and intent language.

Supporters must now try to revive the bill for a full vote in the House.

The original legislation (Senate Bill 5659) calls for a new state-run insurance program that, beginning in 2009, would offer all workers up to $250 a week in paid leave to care for newborn children or ailing family members. The money would come from a 2-cent-per-hour tax on workers -- about $40 per year.

The state estimates the family-leave program would cost more than $30 million a year and require adding nearly 90 new state workers.

Proponents say the program would ease the burden on workers who now must choose between keeping their jobs and staying home to care for a family member.

But business lobbyists predict that, once in place, the program would quickly grow more expensive as supporters push to expand the benefit. They also warn it would play havoc with employers, especially small businesses.

Businesses with more than 25 employees would be required to hold jobs open while workers are on leave. Within a few years, the state projects, more than 30,000 workers a year would take paid leave.

The legislation is backed by many of the Democratic Party's biggest allies, including labor unions, women's groups and senior-citizen advocates.

But Democratic House leaders and Gov. Christine Gregoire have been sending mixed signals. While they say they embrace the concept of paid family leave, they are making no promises to push it into law.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said she thinks lawmakers should pass the legislation in Olympia. But she said she has been told that some House leaders want to tack on a referendum clause.

House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, has mentioned the possibility of a referendum but refuses to say whether that's his preference.

Though a recent poll commissioned by supporters showed the measure has strong support statewide, some Democrats are squeamish about approving a new tax.

Putting the issue up for a public vote might remove some political risk for House members and Gregoire, who all face re-election in 2008. Some Democrats also argue it makes sense to let workers have a say in whether they will have to pay the new tax.

But the bill's supporters worry that a referendum would make the state a major battleground in a growing national war over family medical leave.

Federal law already requires businesses with 50 or more employees to offer 12 weeks of unpaid family leave. While California is the only state with a paid-leave program, there are efforts in several states to pass laws similar to the one proposed here.

Carolyn Logue, state lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, said it's safe to assume that business groups would go all out to defeat a referendum.

"Of course they would," Logue said. "Let's be real; it's a new tax and a huge new government program."

Despite strong backing from labor unions, family-leave supporters say they would be outgunned by big business in a referendum campaign.

"A referendum is a terrible idea because the people who are most impacted by this bill -- such as new mothers -- are the people who have the least time and least money to help with a campaign," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner of Kirkland, director of MomsRising.org, a national women's advocacy group.

Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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