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Colorado Lawmakers Prepare To Unveil Less Ambitious Family Leave Proposal

Lawmakers are gearing up for a debate over paid family leave.
Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
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Lawmakers are gearing up for a debate over paid family leave.

One of the biggest and most consequential battles of the 2020 legislative session is expected to start this week, once Democrats unveil their latest plan to create a statewide paid family leave program.

The bill's sponsors had to make some big concessions to try and get the measure passed this time around. A year ago, their last effort failed due to opposition from the business community and Gov. Jared Polis.

Capitol Coverage reporter Scott Franz talks to lawmakers about the latest version of paid family leave that could be released as soon as Thursday.

"The biggest change is last year it was a social insurance program where every employer and employee paid into a state-run program. This changes it because it's run to insure a private market that's affordable," said Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster.

The latest version won't be as ambitious, or impactful, as last year's. Winter said only companies with more than 20 employees will have to provide a leave program under the new measure. The length of that leave has also been cut from 12 weeks down to eight.

The changes were made after Gov. Polis said he doesn't support having the state run the program.

"We want to make sure taxpayers aren't at any risk from it," he said.

Winter said Polis was "very involved" in the rewrite of the program and that he is on board with the new plan.

And she's making other cuts to get more support. The new version will not apply to seasonal workers, such as those working at ski resorts. But Winter hopes the plan will eventually expand to include them in the coming years.

"Ultimately in 2027 it goes to 12 weeks of paid leave with a rulemaking that will work to set goals for universal coverage both for small businesses and seasonal workers so that everyone in Colorado has paid leave," she said.

While Winter has gotten her governor on board with the concessions, she still faces other skeptics, including Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Colorado Springs.

"So when you peel this onion down all the way to its core … it's a tax," he said.

Lundeen said many employers in Colorado already offer paid family leave programs of their own. He fears a new model from the state could hurt them.

"Using government fiat to force something that may or may not be sustainable usually ends in tears," he said.

Winter estimates employers would pay less than 1% of their entire payroll to support the program. She said existing programs can stay if they meet a series of requirements.

The Colorado Senate debates bills in February
Credit Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
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The Colorado Senate debates bills in February

"I would say my friends on the Republican side of the aisle would rather deal in tax credits, but if we're dealing in tax credits, low-income workers would never have access to something like this, and that was really important to me," she said.

Winter says she is ready for the opposition. She also thinks the compromises she has made will get the bill over the finish line.

"This literally saves lives," she said. "I've met cancer patients who have skipped their second round of chemotherapy because they can't afford to lose their job. Because their choice is to either battle cancer, or not be able to pay their rent. And when you're battling over something that saves lives, you can't stop working for it."

Copyright 2020 KUNC

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.
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