MINOT, N.D. — A mandate for paid family leave has been something of a hobby horse for North Dakota Democrats.
So it isn't the least bit surprising that Democrats would trot out a new iteration of their proposed mandate tailored to take maximum political advantage of the coronavirus pandemic.
Rep. Karla Rose Hanson of Fargo, and Sen. Erin Oban of Bismarck, released details of what they're calling the North Dakota Emergency Paid Leave Fund.
The concept mirrors Hanson's 2019 legislation, which would have created a leave fund for businesses with more than 50 employees funded by a business tax. This iteration is designed to target people affected by the COVID-19 virus.
Hanson and Oban argue that the fund would cost $20 million to implement for the rest of 2020, though the idea is a transparent foot-in-the-door for a more expanded program of the sort Hanson introduced last year (her bill went down in flames, garnering just 17 votes in the state House).
It is not en vogue among Democrats or Republicans to concern oneself with the wisdom government economic interventionism, or how much government programs might cost, but I've never been one to care much for what's fashionable.
This proposal is a failure, both in terms of its wisdom as a policy and its estimated costs.
You may not be persuaded by the first of those arguments. Philosophically, I prefer limited government, and would rather something like paid leave benefits be up to private employers and their employees. I don't think we need government intervention for every challenge Americans face.
But your philosophy may not be mine.
Let us instead scrutinize the costs.
"A $20M fund would assist an estimated 2.5% of North Dakota workers, or about 10,000 individuals," they claim. Remember, they say that amount of funding, coming from federal CARES Act appropriations, would last until the end of December.
That's not remotely accurate.
Hanson and Oban haven't given us an actual bill draft to look at, but we do have a sort of white paper they published alongside their press release announcing this idea.
In it, they describe those who would qualify for this program and include people who "do not have paid sick leave from their employer" or are self-employed. Hanson and Oban state that the first of those groups make up 46% of North Dakota's private-sector workforce.
Add in the latter group, too, and you're probably talking about well over half of North Dakota's workforce.
But those qualifying must also be affected by the coronavirus in some way, having been diagnosed with it or forced to quarantine, or having a member of their household come down with the virus. Also, if your day care or school is closed at all, you qualify.
Those are some very broad categories.
Do we think only 10,000 North Dakotans are going to qualify?
The program pays out for no more than four weeks, capped at $1,500 per week.
The mean for weekly pay in North Dakota is about $925 (that's the figure cited by Hanson and Oban).
Even at that level, the $20 million the two Democrats say the program will cost through December would fund a $925 weekly payment for 10,000 North Dakotans for just a little more than two weeks.
Hanson and Oban would no doubt argue that not every applicant will collect for the full four weeks, and that not all of their estimated 10,000 recipients will qualify at the same time.
But still, two weeks?
The folks at the conservative North Dakota Watchdog Network estimate this program could cost as much as $530 million. That seems outlandish, even for a worst-case scenario. I'm not saying they're wrong, but I'm not willing to endorse that estimate without looking at an actual bill draft.
Let us suffice to say that Hanson's and Oban's estimate is laughably low.
Maybe that's the point. Hanson and Oban know their proposal won't see the light of day. Calls for a special session (which I support) between now and the beginning of the regular legislative session in January have already been rejected by those who could initiate one.
This proposal isn't about making policy. It's about manufacturing a headline.
What if, by some miracle, a special session were to be convened, and this legislation were to pass?
Then the massive cost overrun would be used as evidence for an expanded and more permanent program of the sort Hanson has proposed all along. Win-win for the Democrats, I guess.
I'm very much in favor of helping people get through this pandemic.
I'm not in favor of leveraging this emergent situation to create expensive government programs.
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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.