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Saving paid sick leave

Can advocates get a strong sick leave bill out of a veto override fight with Hogan? Maybe, but it's a risky pa

Del. Luke Clippinger is right when he says the effort in the General Assembly to require employers to provide paid sick leave for most workers is not a nefarious Democratic plot to "get" Gov. Larry Hogan. Advocates were pushing the issue long before Mr. Hogan was elected, and they have finally arrived at the point where their goal is within sight. But unless some pragmatism rules the day, sick leave backers risk having their efforts stymied this year and potentially for years to come.

The first iteration of this paid sick leave proposal was introduced in 2013 and got hearings in the House Economic Matters and Senate Finance committees, but neither gave it a vote. The same thing happened in 2014 and 2015. Last year, the legislation still went nowhere in the Senate, but it passed the House with an 84-54 margin.

Given that momentum and Governor Hogan's decision to adopt the issue by including a more modest version of the legislation as a key item on his agenda, paid sick leave looked like a no-lose proposition this year. And indeed, it passed the House with a strong margin again (88-51) with a different version passing the Senate 29-18.

Yet Mr. Hogan says the legislation is "dead on arrival" if it makes it to his desk, and it might be. House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller have plenty of experience overriding vetoes by Republican governors, but this one could prove more difficult than usual. The House and Senate both supported the measure with a veto-proof margin — but just barely.

Senators in particular engaged in a contentious debate, and their version of the legislation is different in key respects from the bill that passed the House. Among other things, the Senate allows a broader exemption for small businesses, reduces the minimum number of sick days employees can accrue and covers fewer part-time and seasonal workers. It might be hard to find a compromise sufficiently attractive to both chambers to muster veto-proof margins in both. The House has only three votes to spare, and the Senate just one. Setting up a veto and override fight might be just what the partisans among legislative Democrats and the Hogan administration want, allowing both to posture for their supporters and blame the other side. But for those who are genuinely passionate about the issue, it's a risky path forward.

We have never been champions of this issue. We see strong arguments for requiring paid sick leave, particularly on public health grounds, given that so many restaurant workers lack the benefit and wind up going to work when they are ill. But we are also mindful of the potential cost to employers, particularly small businesses, and given the economic headwinds Maryland is likely to face as a result of President Donald Trump's efforts to slash the federal workforce, we are cautious about anything that could hinder the state's economic competitiveness. We didn't even endorse Governor Hogan's bill, which would exempt businesses with fewer than 50 employees (rather than 14 or 15 in the House and Senate bills), instead providing them with tax incentives to encourage them to offer the benefit. We would understand if those who have fought for years to advance this cause are reluctant to take our advice.

However, there is the chance for a compromise here. The Hogan administration has objected specifically to the enforcement provisions in the House and Senate bills, finding them overly punitive — more so than the language considered in previous years. Though the governor had reasons for picking 50 as the cutoff for what constitutes a small business — it's consistent with provisions in the Affordable Care Act, for example — there is surely room for movement there as well. The governor's proposed tax incentive would be worth up to about $1,740 for a small business, which is enough to cover the projected cost of sick leave benefits for about 20 employees. The idea didn't prompt much discussion in bill hearings, but with some modification it could be an effective tool to resolve the competing interests of businesses and workers.

We realize that a compromise between the legislature and the governor would inevitably leave some workers out. But getting the requirement on the books will put advocates in a stronger position to tweak its provisions in the future if it isn't working as well as it should.

Governor Hogan says he's willing to negotiate, but he and the legislature don't have a stellar track of doing that when it comes to crafting compromises on complex pieces of legislation. Unless something changes, this bill won't be an exception. Legislators complain that the administration has made no effort to reach out. The administration complains that the legislature isn't taking its proposal seriously. Bringing them together won't be easy, but the advocates who have been working on this issue for years ought to at least try.

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