In the New Hampshire legislature this week, Republicans and Democrats are battling to seize the narrative over the issue of paid family and medical leave. They have very different stories to tell the voters.
Democrats want to tell a story about what they are giving you: Paid time off for hurting families when they need to care for a loved one. A paycheck for parents to stay home and cherish a new-born baby. And it’s “a critical tool to help New Hampshire…meet the caregiving needs of our aging population, and support substance use disorder recovery efforts,” according to Sen. Dan Feltes, the Democrat Senate Majority Leader at the forefront of this fight.
Their story: We’re from the Democratic Party, and we’re here to help.
Republicans, on the other hand, want to tell the story about all the things the NH Democrats want to take: Your hard-earned dollars, your right to run your own business as you choose and, perhaps most importantly, taking away the “New Hampshire Advantage” of being a no-income-tax/no-sales-tax state.
The question isn’t who’s right or wrong. It’s a political question: Which story will voters like more?
Listening to the Democrats, it’s clear they’re worried about how their tale will be received. Supporters are quick to talk up the benefits for businesses (“it help New Hampshire attract and retain the workforce of tomorrow,” Feltes says. A lot.) And they sound defensive on the details:
It’s not an income tax. It’s a payroll tax. And because businesses with their own PFML programs don’t necessarily have to participate, their program isn’t mandatory. It’s voluntary.
Sen. Feltes told NHJournal the program works this way:
“This operates like unemployment insurance. The difference is businesses can exercise a private option first, and, if they chose the public option, businesses have the option of paying the family and medical leave insurance premiums through a payroll deduction, or simply pay it on behalf of their workers. Whatever method used under the public option, the family and medical leave insurance premium equates to 5 cents per $10 dollars in wages resulting in a sustainable, affordable and accessible program for all workers and small businesses.”
Granite State Republicans tell a different story. Newly-elected NHGOP chairman Steve Stepanek and the state party have released an online ad directly attacking the Democrats’ proposal as an income tax.
“New Hampshire Democrats have put forward a piece of legislation so flawed that it creates an Income Tax on all New Hampshire employees and allows an unelected bureaucrat to raise the rate of taxation and curb benefits of the program without legislative approval,” Stepanek said in a statement. “The Senate needs to reject this Income Tax masquerading as a Paid Family and Medical Leave program and look to the free market to supply this benefit.”
So is it an income tax or a payroll tax? Or is the better question: Who cares? Are workers who see their paychecks get smaller going to care where the payroll deduction appears on their check stub?
“I don’t think so,” Ray Chadwick, chairman of the Granite State Taxpayers, told NHJournal. “The average individual would say ‘Hey, they’re taking money out of my paycheck.'”
Chadwick’s organization was dragged into the conversation when allies of the Democratic proposal began spreading the word that the GST agreed that it did not include an income tax. Is that true?
“We are issuing a clarification,” Chadwick said. “There was a theoretical discussion about income taxes opposed to payroll taxes and we want to be very clear: The Democrats’ proposal is definitely a tax, and it’s a tax on people’s income. And Granite State Taxpayers opposes it.”
As to the question of whether this PFML proposal is a mandate or not, next door in Vermont Democrats have been very open about their position. In response to Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT) joining with Gov. Sununu on a joint, private-sector-based PFML plan, Democratic legislative leaders said that a paid family leave program shouldn’t be voluntary.
“It seems almost impossible to believe that under a voluntary program, those who wish to participate under such a program would not be paying a far greater price than the legislation that passed [in Vermont] last year,” VT State Senate Finance Chair Tim Ashe (D) said.
And given that the newest version of the NH legislation has no opt-in/opt-out provisions, it appears Granite State Democrats agree.
As NHJournal has written previously, Gov. Sununu is currently winning this fight because he’s got a plan, too. You can’t beat something with nothing and Sununu has something, whether or not the Democrats think it’s a good plan. And Sununu’s plan makes PFML benefits available and without taxing income or wages. So he’s got a deal the Democrats can’t match.
Plus, the storyline itself works in Sununu’s favor. The simplest view of the Democrats’ proposal is “a tax is a tax and a mandate is a mandate.” When people come home from work with less money in their pockets, Republicans can say “The Democrats took it!”
Democrats will answer “Yeah, but one day when you need it, we’re giving you paid time off, so we rock!”
Care to guess which story voters will like best?