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Colorado’s paid family leave bill in crisis as sponsors bail

It is increasingly likely that Colorado Democrats will not pass a bill this year to start a statewide paid family and medical leave program.

On Sunday evening, the lead bill sponsors, Sen. Faith Winter and Rep. Matt Gray, learned that their partners on the bill, Rep. Monica Duran and Sen. Angela Williams, will drop their names from the effort.

At a minimum, it represents a huge setback for the bill, and it could signal that the bill is nearing death.

Winter, a Westminster Democrat, was in tears during a brief interview on the Senate floor on Monday morning.

“I failed Coloradans. I tried to get it done, and I couldn’t get it done,” she said.

Winter later added that she hopes she can still introduce a bill this session, though she is aware that the path to passage is deeply uncertain.

This latest setback for the bill comes at a time when longtime advocates of paid family leave have started to publicly criticize the bill for not going far enough to ensure equity and impact, particularly for some low-income workers and people of color who are seen as most vulnerable in workplace settings.

On Monday morning, Williams and Duran texted identical statements to The Denver Post, explaining why they’re abandoning the effort: “This bill in its current form does not deliver a benefit to the vast majority who tend to work in low-wage jobs that often lack stability. I represent those who come from the most marginalized communities and who are most likely to suffer job losses when they take time to care for themselves and their families. I believe strongly in Paid Family Medical Leave in principle but (am) struggling with many of the details.”

Winter and Gray have been working to craft a bill that would bring paid leave benefits to workers across industries and income brackets. But it’s been immensely difficult, they’ve said, to achieve that goal while also satisfying the long list of concerns from well-funded and politically connected business groups — not to mention the governor, whose fingerprints are all over the latest bill draft.

“Ultimately, we tried to thread a needle that was impossible to thread, to bring people together that had various red lines, and ultimately we couldn’t get a bill across the threshold that protected our most vulnerable workers and could pass,” Winter said.

Later in the day she added, by text message: “Needles are really hard to thread we are going to continue to try and thread the needle.”

This bill was a top priority for Democrats entering this session, just as it was in 2019. Asked if it’s now effectively dead, Winter said, “I don’t know. I always want to keep trying. I don’t know what that looks like going forward.”

The matter could be settled at the ballot instead of in the Capitol. Anticipating that the bill might either get watered down or entirely destroyed, progressive advocates in January announced plans to try to put a paid family leave program onto Colorado 2020 ballot. They said they’ve got significant financial backing.

If such a measure does land on Colorado’s ballot, it’s a near-certainty that business groups will put significant money into defeating it. A failed bill this session followed by a failed ballot measure would be such a profound setback, some proponents fear, that it could all but kill any chance of a paid family leave program starting here in the near future.

That’s a scary proposition for those troubled by the fact that a majority of Colorado workers do not enjoy a paid family and medical leave benefit. The latest proposal from the remaining sponsors would have ensured most workers get that benefit — but, some advocates say, “most” isn’t good enough.

A primary concern among progressives involved with this bill is that its sponsors are no longer proposing a state-run social insurance program to provide the leave. The original plan was to have employees and employers pay into this program, and to have the benefits distributed out of it.

They’re especially troubled that the bill, as written, would leave out some immigrants and seasonal workers, and that even those who are eligible might be denied coverage, or discriminated against.

The latest proposal, a compromise that reflects the interests of business groups and the governor’s office, would still require employers to provide paid family leave to most of their workers, but it would give employers the option to do this through a private insurance plan. A task force convened by the legislature to study how to deliver family leave to Colorado workers specifically recommended against this model, and the serious consideration it’s now getting is evidently very worrisome to progressive advocates.

“As a small business owner and a fiscal conservative, I am deeply disappointed that the governor and the bill sponsors are ignoring the recommendation of the FAMLI task force,” said Edwin Zoe, a business owner and board member for the progressive business association Good Business Colorado board member, in a press release issued last week.

Zoe continued: “We need a real solution to a lack of paid leave. This new proposal bows down to the insurance lobby as they take money off the table that belongs to Coloradans facing hardship.”

Winter and Gray don’t disagree that there’s real risk in bringing the private insurance industry — and the profit motives central to their business — into the fold. But for more than a year a deluge of lobbyists, plus the governor and some lawmakers, have been working hard to defeat the social insurance program that the sponsors and their advocates have long preferred.

In an interview Feb. 4, Winter told The Post that she knew the new proposal could alienate her progressive backers.

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