In response to the looting and chaos that erupted in Baghdad following the American invasion of Iraq, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” To some, it was a callous remark, but not entirely an inaccurate description of how a representative democracy actually governs.
State lawmakers frequently propose legislation to raid the general fund for pet projects that serve the special interests of a constituency of voters. These measures often arise and get passed into law without regard for how they fit with the sum total of all other legislation.
Aside from the governor’s annual budget and State of the State address, there is no big picture vision for what the people of Washington want our state to become. Instead, it’s cobbled together by individual, and often competing, pieces of legislation.
Such is the case with the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FMLI) law. The Legislature passed a law in 2007 granting workers of businesses with fewer than 50 employees up to five weeks of time off without worry of losing their jobs. It includes a small stipend. Women having babies, for example, could receive up to $250 per week – based on a formula using their rate of pay – and spend time with their newborn child.
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Lawmakers have postponed implementation of the law because they considered it an undue burden on families and small businesses during the recession. A bill making its way through the Legislature would repeal the law.
At the same time, several other bills in the House and Senate acknowledge the benefits of early childhood education, and would require the Department of Early Learning to expand its education and assistance programs. Other bills call for legislative task forces on early learning, and to fund expansion of early learning programs.
Education experts agree that when parents are able to spend quality time with their children from birth to age 5, the children do better in school, are more likely to graduate and are less likely to become a burden on taxpayers through the criminal justice system.
Allowing women who work in small businesses to spend five weeks with a newborn – another bill would expand the leave to 12 weeks – is consistent with state support for our early learning goals.
The FMLI law also supports the state’s drive for economic recovery. Less than 10 percent of businesses in Washington offer paid family leave plans. Middle- and low-income workers must rely on 12 weeks of unpaid leave to recover from serious injuries or for care of a newborn.
Taking unpaid leave can lead to financial disaster for average income households with mortgages and other bills to pay. The small amount of assistance provided by FMLI can make the difference whether a parent can afford to stay home with a newborn, or is forced to leave them in child care.
The family leave law is largely self-funding, with no charge to the state’s general fund. It is financed by a payroll tax of 0.2 percent of wages, shared equally by employees and employers. For the average worker, that means about a dollar a week.
Rep. Chris Reykdal is co-sponsoring the House bill to expand and implement the 2007 FMLI law. The bill deserves support, because it strengthens families and the state’s middle-income households.