Paid family leave sure to be a “squeaker” come Monday

The lobbyists' feeding frenzy continued in Trenton today as representatives from both the business and labor communities zeroed in on lawmakers in the hallways of power and attempted to elicit the promise of a yes or no vote on the issue of paid family leave.

The measure would extend state liability insurance to employees for up to six weeks, enabling workers to care for themselves, a newborn or a sick relative. Funding would come from the workers contributing what adds up to roughly $33 each per year out of their paychecks.

With the billsuccessfully emerging from theAssembly LaborCommittee today, the Senate is scheduled to convene for a floor vote on Monday. Between now and then those senators seen as fence sitters will be hearing a siren song from labor urging them to vote in the affirmative, even as business just as sweetly tells them they’d better not.

The Democrats hold control of the Senate by a margin of 23-17, but backers of the bill may have to reach across the aisle if they want to pass this one. Senators Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), Nia Gill (D-Essex), Ron Rice (D-Essex), Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), PaulSarlo (D-Bergen)and probably others have strong reservations about the bill in its current state.

"I think it will be a squeaker," admitted Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a co-sponsor of the bill. "I would hope each of these people considers what it’s like with a brand new baby or someone with an illness."

At least one Republican, Sen. Bill Baroni (R-Mercer), said he would vote for paid family leave on Monday. And the bill's sponsor, Senate Majority LeaderStephen Sweeney (D-Salem), has already muscled up some supporters within the ranks of his own Democratic caucus, who as recently as two months ago were still skeptical.

"The bill as it is now I am supporting," Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) told today. "When it waspaid family leave for12 weeks, I had reservations, but now that it has been scaled back to six weeks, I’m on board."

Whelan said the fact that it’s employees themselves who pay into a collective fund creates a strong incentive for them to not abuse the system. Still, "It’s going to be a tough issue. There have been major concessions, but it doesn’t seem to mean anything to some members of the business community. They’re going to be out there lobbying on Monday."

Two pro-labor Republicans, Sen. Phil Haines (R-Burlington) and Sen. Sean Kean (R-Monmouth), can’t be expectedto deliver a "yes" vote onthis bill, for which AFL-CIO President Charles Wowkanech is pressing particularly hard. Sources say Haines intends to vote against the bill. This week, Kean told that he was initially dead-set against paid family leave, but now sees himself as uncertain.

So is Scutari.

"I don’t know yet," said the Middlesex Democrat. "I’m concerned about small businesses. I understand there have been concessions, but at some point you have to be very concerned about the business environment in New Jersey."

Riceis so concerned about it he said he plans to abstain from voting on Monday unless there’s a major reversal from Sweeney and labor on what the Essex senator says is a key point.

"It’s a good bill," Rice conceded, "but I have to get an amendment in there that expressly exempts businesses that employ ten people or less. If you look at businesses up and down the avenue where my office is (South Orange Avenue), you realize these business owners are hurting. What these guys – the Sweeneys and the Wowkanechs – have to understand is, ‘I love you,’ but I have some concerns here. I’ve got to get clarity."

As for Sarlo, the Bergenite describes himself as a pro business Democrat with a strong labor record. Where does that leave him come Monday?

"I don't even know yet," Sarlo said.

Working the pro-business side of the argument and hoping to soften up some key legislators, former Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan's Americans for Prosperity New Jersey islaunching a radio ad campaign against the legislation tomorrow. Lonegan targets Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Begen), Sen. John Adler (D-Camden), Sarlo, Whelan andBaroni.

"Sarlo, Gordon, and Whalen come from competitive districts and are most subject to public opinion, John Adler is running for Congress, and Bill Baroni is the only Republican who has not come out against this bill, and he needs to feel the heat as well," Lonegan explained in a statement.

"Baroni is giving the Democrats cover by supporting this bill. If he would join the other sixteen Republicans in opposition, paid family leave will not pass the state Senate," Lonegan added.

Meanwhile, labor forces persist in the opposite direction as they attempt to ramrod the bill past the finish line.

"I hope it gets done, if it doesn’t get done then we have the budget and it might not get done," said Ray Stever, president of the Industrial Union Council.

Paid family leave sure to be a “squeaker” come Monday