EDITORIAL: This year’s uncapped FAMLI paid-leave bill is fatally flawed again — a tax is a tax

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Strike two.

Given yet another chance to pass a statewide, state-run family leave program, Democrats whiffed on the pitch for 2019. Again.

Given that it’s only the middle of March, and Dems, who control the entire state government, seem to have to no limit to how much legislation they can muscle through, there’s a strong chance they can revise the 2019 FAMLI Act and make it workable.

As it’s written, it’s absolutely not.

The idea behind Family and Medical Leave Insurance is vital. It’s nearly certain that some day, everyone in Colorado is going to need to leave work for an extended time. Whether it’s after having a baby, taking care of an ailing spouse, parent or even ourselves, it’s inevitable. The Colorado FAMLI program, Senate Bill 19-188,  would provide up to 12-weeks of partially paid leave to everybody. Few people have effective long-term leave benefits at work. Many people face financial ruin if they must leave their jobs for even a few weeks, let alone several.

Private long-term leave insurance is expensive. So for a few years, Democrats have tried to find a way to make a state-run family leave program palatable to more than skeptical Republicans. The GOP is out of power now and out of the way of Democrats, who know the public wants such a program.

But not this one.

Just like last year, proponents want to fund this long-term leave insurance program with a tax, only they don’t want to call it a tax.

It’s for a good reason. In Colorado, state lawmakers must ask voters to approve any new or increased taxes. Bill sponsors want to call money raised to fund this new insurance program “premiums.” But everyone in Colorado who works must pay half this “premium,” and their employer  must pay the other half. The “premium” is 0.69 percent of their salary.

Mandatory percentages of personal income paid regularly to the government for any reason is a tax.

We’re fine with the part of this program that buys insurance for 12 weeks of pay for what sounds like a really good rate, but it’s a tax. We have little doubt that state courts will determine it’s a tax, too.

Since a whopping 70 percent or so of people in Colorado and the nation really like the idea of family leave programs, we have no doubt Colorado voters would overwhelmingly approve this legislation — and the tax that funds it — if the tax rate stays as reasonable as the introductory rate.

That’s the program’s biggest problem as it’s written. For a couple of years, Colorado residents and businesses would split the 0.69 percent tax/premium, even though there’s no benefits to anyone for the first year.

If you make $30,000 a year, your share of the FAMLI tax would be about $2 a week. Pretty cheap.

But after two years, state officials must predict and ensure the solvency of this new insurance. Officials would be forced by this law to raise the FAMLI tax as high as they need to so to ensure the insurance program stays in the black, amassing a large pool of reserves to do it.

There’s no limit in the bill as written as how high the state could raise this new tax.

That’s an extraordinarily bad idea. Ensuring the new program is solvent could easily create hardships or disasters for Colorado taxpayers, especially the poorest and most vulnerable that this measure is created to benefit most.

Without a cap on this tax, the bill is fatally flawed, given the vast unknowns of what this program will cost.

Other problems just require clarity. Do self-employed Colorado residents pay both halves of the tax? Would private, long-term disability policies be allowed to clip benefits to those who received this new state benefit? How would the state handle fraud? How would the state control administrative costs? Can you get a job one week and take FAMLI leave the next?

But above all, why would Democrats sully this important program by dooming it to a quick death in the courts or an eternal legal purgatory by trying to skirt the Taxpayer Bill of Rights law requiring voters to sanction this?

Instead, cap the tax and refer the measure to voters this November.

The bill gets its first hearing this week in a Senate committee, which should send the measure back to sponsors for revision. Either that, or proponents are certain to strike out.