Politics & Government

Paid family leave now in hands of House

Workers would receive five weeks of paid family leave to care for a new child or a sick parent under a measure passed Wednesday by the state Senate, with supporters saying it was a win for families and opponents saying it would add an unnecessary tax on workers.

"It seems to me that Washington workers shouldn't have to choose between their families and their jobs," said Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, and the main sponsor of the measure, which passed 32-17. "It's important that workers have that flexibility so that they can have healthy families."

The bill now goes to the House. If it passes there and is signed into law, Washington and California will be the only two states with paid-family-leave measures on the books. New Jersey and Massachusetts are considering similar measures, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families.

The measure would give workers up to five weeks of paid family leave each year. Originally, the bill would have allowed workers to use the time as personal sick leave, but a replacement bill offered on the floor removed that language.

The paid-leave program would take effect in 2009, and weekly payments initially would be $250 but would rise with inflation each year thereafter.

Employees would pay 2 cents an hour, deducted from their paychecks by their employers.

The measure also would require employers to hold workers' jobs open while they are on leave, although an amendment would exempt small businesses from that requirement.

Another amendment would provide a tax credit for small businesses that hire replacement workers for those taking leave.

Under federal law, paid leave is not required, but businesses with 50 or more employees must give workers up to 12 weeks of medical leave per year for themselves or to take care of an ailing relative.

The Office of Financial Management was working Wednesday to calculate the bill's cost to the state after the amendments. The initial fiscal note attached to the measure pegged its cost at nearly $200 million for the 2011-2013 biennium.

But opponents said the costs are likely to increase, and one lawmaker called the measure a "new tax, a new entitlement and a new bureaucracy."

"While 2 cents per hour sounds affordable, this is a first step," said Janea Holmquist, R-Moses Lake. "Pretty soon, we're going to be told people can't live on $250 a week, so we're going to have to increase this tax."

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said she thought the bill had a good chance of passing the House.

"I think that will probably play pretty well in our caucus," she said. "Especially when it comes to having a child, those first months are so critical for bonding with a newborn. It's incredibly important that if nothing else, we do that."

Republican Sens. Pam Roach of Auburn and Don Benton of Vancouver crossed the aisle to vote for the measure, while two Democrats voted against it - Sens. Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island and Tim Sheldon of Potlatch.

Gov. Chris Gregoire had not yet seen the measure but is "generally supportive of the concept," said her spokeswoman, Holly Armstrong.

Amendments were added to exempt personal illness and small businesses with fewer than 25 employees from certain provisions. They were added because some legislators expressed concerns that the program could quickly become bureaucratic and hard on small businesses.

Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, said, "they may have made these exceptions, but I don't buy that. Everyone will get dragged into it in two to four years ... (the measure is) going to have a tough time in the House."

Medical marijuana

The Senate also passed a measure Wednesday clarifying the state's medical marijuana law. Initiative 692, passed in 1998, gives doctors the right to recommend - but not prescribe - marijuana for people suffering from cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma and other conditions that cause "intractable pain."

Marijuana is still illegal to buy and sell, but possession of pot for medical purposes is allowed under I-692. State law does not say how people can obtain it.

Under the measure that passed Wednesday, the Department of Health would make recommendations on how qualified patients would be able to access marijuana safely and consistently. The department also would define what the quantity should be for a 60-day supply for patients - the amount they are legally allowed to possess.

The measure also adds Crohn's disease, hepatitis C and anorexia to the list of terminal or debilitating medical conditions that justify marijuana use.

The bill passed on a 39-10 vote and now heads to the House.

Kurt Ackerson of The Olympian contributed to this report.