Editorial: Legislators should approve paid family and medical leave

Published: 6/8/2017 6:59:13 PM

A referendum can be a crude way to tackle complex issues, a process of last resort written into most state constitutions allowing voters to bypass their own legislators who are unable or unwilling to tackle issues of concern to their constituents.

Legislators, not surprisingly, argue that the standard lawmaking process — involving House, Senate and governor — is better designed to deliver compromises that can address subtleties of our complex modern society.

In the 1980s, Massachusetts voters, tired of constantly rising property taxes that no one seemed willing or able to curb, passed Proposition 2½, which to this day has capped annual property tax increases. But even that law required modifications by the Legislature in later years to address the realities of local finance, allowing for local overrides and debt exclusions to fund school construction when the Baby Boom echo came along, for example.

Last year we saw the referendum process used successfully by advocates of legalized recreational marijuana. But now legislators are faced with trying to fine-tune that law, which many, even those who support legalization, believe has several practical flaws.

And in recent days, state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, has sounded the alarm over the potential for another referendum if the Legislature doesn’t pass its own bill providing the state’s workers with a guaranteed paid family and medical leave.

If a paid family and medical leave bill does not pass the Legislature this session, the issue could end up before voters as a ballot question, according to Rosenberg, who before last year issued the same warning about legal pot.

Family and medical leave, which is a complex issue with many potential impacts on employers, employees and the economy, may fare better in the Legislature.

The Senate last year passed a bill to create a paid family and medical leave program, and similar legislation filed in January has support from the majority of lawmakers — at least 93 representatives and 25 senators.

“I am hopeful that the Legislature will take this question up during this term and get it to the governor’s desk,” Rosenberg wrote during a question-and-answer session on Facebook last week. “It would be far better to do it in the Legislature than the ballot. Everyone concerned about this should contact their state representative, senator, and the governor.”

House and Senate versions create an insurance program making workers eligible for paid leave to recover from a serious illness or injury, care for a sick or injured family member or for a new child. The two bills differ in some areas — maximum weekly benefit is set at $650 under a House bill and $1,000 in the Senate — but both call for the leave to be financed at least in part by employer contributions and allow employers to require that workers contribute up to 50 percent of the premium cost.

The bills are scheduled for discussion before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development at a Tuesday hearing.

The paid leave bills are backed by the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition, which led a successful campaign in 2014 for a ballot law requiring employers provide paid sick leave to Massachusetts workers.

The coalition also supports raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and members have said a 2018 ballot question could be in the cards if that effort doesn’t succeed legislatively. Raise Up Massachusetts spokesman Steve Crawford says the coalition is considering going to the ballot on paid family leave as well.

This, no doubt, is what has led Rosenberg to ask voters to lobby his fellow legislators on family leave.

Rosenberg wrote in the Facebook chat, “In the Senate we have also been working on closing the income and wealth gap, starting with increasing the minimum to enhancing access to benefits like paid sick time, paid family and medical leave. All of these can contribute to improving individual lives and families’ circumstances as well as the economy as a whole.”

We hope he’s right. It will be great if Massachusetts can advance the welfare of its residents with such a benefit, but there are costs to be paid and shared. The devil is in the details, and we think that the regular legislative process is preferable to a ballot question on complicated issues like these.

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