Family leave on legislative agenda

The Colorado Legislature meets 120 days starting in early January and ending in early May. BizWest File Photo

DENVER — With Colorado Democrats in command of both houses and the governor’s office for the second straight year, expect there will once again be a flurry of new laws passed  in the 2020 legislative session, but as yet there are few pieces of that puzzle in place.

One bill that will probably be introduced early in the session is another version of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which a year ago some projected would have cost Colorado businesses $250 million in new taxes. As of the end of 2019, no one was quite sure exactly what that act will look like. Though Democrats fell short of efforts to pass the act in 2019, the FAMLI (Family Medical Leave Insurance Program) was passed and signed by Gov. Jared Polis, which created a task force and allocated $180,000 to study alternatives.

“The study bill tasked creating recommendations for the 2020 bill,” said Debra Brown, executive director of Good Business Colorado, in a December meeting of the Northwest Chamber Alliance.  “Actuarial analysis is being finalized to understand different models and potential costs.”

“There’s not a question of whether there’s a value,” said Brown, whose organization includes about 200 small business owners and has been closely following the bill. “Less than 50 percent of the workforce (in Colorado) work for a company covered by (federal) FMLA.

“There will be legislation around family leave; we just don’t know what it will look like,” Brown said.

So there were few easy answers for members of the Alliance, which includes chambers from Boulder and Broomfield counties. Essentially, no one yet knows exactly what form the bill will take and what small businesses will be impacted.

“We haven’t seen a proposal or a final report by the task force,” Brown said. However, she said that word on the grapevine was that businesses with around 15 to 20 employees will probably be included.

Most of the proposals are also focusing on insurance programs for which both employees and employers will contribute, she said, and those contributions will range according to pay, as higher-paid employees would also command larger payouts for leave. Also up in the air is whether the state would manage the insurance program, or if it would be handed to a third-party insurer.

“Cost is obviously the primary concern for our employers,” said Laura Rizzo, senior vice president of external affairs for the Denver Chamber of Commerce. “We’re being open minded, but we cannot have confidence that premiums are going to be affordable.”

Both Brown and Rizzo said the program will probably have opt out clauses for larger businesses that already provide family and medical leave, which may have better benefits than those provided by any state program. Whether individuals could opt out of paying into the program is probably going to be of greater controversy, as low-pay employees, who might need the insurance to a greater extent, might also be the least able to pay premiums and therefore most likely to opt out.

And on the employer side, “How do you justify that these big employers who have this benefit can opt out?” asked T.J Sullivan, executive director of the Superior Chamber of Commerce. “If they don’t have to pay into the leave program, then I (as small business owner) would have to pay even more.”

In other potential legislation:

Health Care:  State senators will be closely following Gov. Jared Polis’ roadmap on health care, said Bella Combest, communications director for Senate Democrats. “Of biggest focus is transparency and accountability with hospitals — no surprise billing,” she said. The legislature will also consider a public insurance option to create more competition among insurers and more options for people in rural areas of the state now covered by just a single insurer.

Kim Bimestefer, the state official leading the charge for health care reform in Colorado — told attendees at a legislative forum late last year that the plan under consideration is “a moderate alternative to drive down costs over a number of years.”

She said insurance carriers, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies will all be called upon to participate in a solution that will help to drive down costs for consumers.

“Carriers, step up and do your job,” she told health insurance providers. Hospitals, she said, account for 40 percent of health-care costs and “we’re out of line with the rest of the country. We need to bring down costs thoughtfully over time. This is not an overreach of state government,” she said. “We need to protect the independence of hospitals,” she said of independent, small hospitals around the state. “But if you’re in a big system and are making big profits, that’s overcharging our communities. We need to find a balance in what we’re charging employers and communities.”

She said drug costs account for about 20 percent of health-care costs. She said recent mergers of drug and insurance companies have resulted in savings for insurers, but the savings are not passed through to the consumer. Instead, this business has become a profit center for insurance companies.

Hospitals fear that they’ll be asked to bear most of the costs of changes to the system. As Margo Karsten, CEO Northern Colorado at Banner Health, said at a forum that if hospitals cut administrative costs in order to reduce overall health care costs, employers need to benefit by paying less for insurance.

Transportation: With the failure of the two ballot measures to increase transportation funding last fall, transportation is still very much up in the air. The governor’s budget did note an increase of $55 million from the state, bringing the total to $605 million without counting federal funds. But that pales in comparison to the $9 billion of identified and unfunded statewide projects.

“Transportation is a big area and we are looking at many different scenarios” given the funding shortfall, Combest said. Expect Senate President Leroy M. Garcia Jr. to be leading the charge in this area.

The Colorado Legislature meets 120 days starting in early January and ending in early May. BizWest File Photo

DENVER — With Colorado Democrats in command of both houses and the governor’s office for the second straight year, expect there will once again be a flurry of new laws passed  in the 2020 legislative session, but as yet there are few pieces of that puzzle in place.

One bill that will probably be introduced early in the session is another version of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which a year ago some projected would have cost Colorado businesses $250 million in new taxes. As of the end of 2019, no one was quite sure exactly what that act will look like. Though Democrats fell short of efforts to pass the act in 2019, the FAMLI (Family Medical Leave Insurance Program) was passed and signed by Gov. Jared Polis, which created a task force and allocated $180,000 to study alternatives.

“The study bill tasked creating recommendations for the 2020 bill,” said Debra Brown, executive director of Good Business Colorado, in a December meeting of the Northwest Chamber Alliance.  “Actuarial analysis is being finalized to understand different models and potential costs.”

“There’s not a question of whether there’s a value,” said Brown, whose organization includes about 200 small business owners and has been closely following the…