File. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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For the second time this week, old D.C. Council colleagues are locking horns over a proposal for paid family leave.

Former At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange, who now directs the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, has joined Mayor Muriel Bowser in taking aim at a bill that D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and his staff are marking up. Bowser and Mendelson openly disagreed about the legislation during a mayor-council breakfast Tuesday. While its provisions are likely to change, the latest available version of the bill would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave for private-sector workers in the District so they could raise children and care for themselves or ill relatives

The rub is over how to finance the benefit, which the D.C. government would administer. The legislation currently calls for a 1 percent tax on employer payrolls. Critics say the tax would make it harder for businesses—particularly small ones—to stay competitive in the region. They’re also skeptical about the District effectively running the program and the potential for fraud. Proponents have responded that a universal benefit would help residents in need and make D.C. a more attractive place to work, arguing that the government is in the best position to guarantee an equitable policy.

The business community has expressed concerns about the bill before, but now Orange is using his lobbying pulpit to up the ante. Last month, the chamber and the Consortium of Universities came out with their own alternative proposal. It would establish an employer mandate where businesses with more than 50 employees—most of which already offer disability insurance—would have to provide eight weeks of paid leave with 100 percent wage replacement to full-time workers. With $20 million in start-up funds plus annual infusions, the District would help finance an insurance pool for small businesses, which would have more time than larger ones to administer the benefit.

“What is unacceptable and should be rejected is raising taxes to the tune of $400 million through imposing a 1 percent tax on District employers,” Orange said in a statement Wednesday, citing a preliminary estimate of the bill’s cost by D.C.’s Chief Financial Officer. (Mendelson says the legislation would cost closer to $300 million to enact.) “The business community (big, medium, and small employers) want to do the right thing by mandating eight weeks of paid leave without raising taxes and without creating more government bureaucracy.”

A spokeswoman for Mendelson, who has promised to release a revised version of the bill by mid-November, dismissed the chamber’s “salvo [as] premature.” Also, their suggestion is not financially balanced,” she said. Earlier this week, the chairman said there’s “widespread support” for the bill, and that paid family leave is becoming more popular nationally.

“It would be a significant step in providing benefits to workers in the District, especially lower-income workers who can’t afford the time off for family needs or self-care needs,” Mendelson explained.

But in an interview, Orange echoes Bowser’s remarks Tuesday that the legislation is being crafted in “secrecy.” He says Mendelson appears to be trying to “rush it through” the council before the end the year, after which it would lapse and have to be reintroduced. (Mendelson has previously and freely committed to getting the legislation to a vote in 2016.) 

“He is indicating that those who are not on board will come on board and be on board,” Orange says of the chairman. “The business community’s opinion is that he’s just hellbent on raising taxes. For them to say [our proposal] is not financially balanced, that’s erroneous.”

Asked if the chamber would compromise on a lower employer tax to fund the bill, Orange says “there’s no need for a tax increase” and lawmakers need only to “zero in on the remaining issue” of how to treat small businesses. “In our view, if we’re unable to do that, there’s something else going on,” he adds. (Orange left the council in August after losing to Robert White in the June primary and is able to lobby on all but a few matters, ethics officials have ruled.)

At-Large Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and David Grosso originally introduced a paid leave bill last October that would have required employers to offer up to 16 weeks of the benefit. The council has held three hearings on it.