Ernst proposal would give new parents paid leave benefits, delay their Social Security benefits

Ernst proposal would give new parents paid leave benefits, delay their Social Security benefits
Joni Ernst

WASHINGTON — Sen. Joni Ernst unveiled a proposal Tuesday that would grant paid leave benefits to new parents — in exchange for delaying their Social Security benefits.

The Iowa Republican joined Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in offering what they characterized as a discussion draft of their Child Rearing and Development Leave Empowerment (CRADLE) Act.

“Millions of moms and dads in Iowa and across the country struggle with the realities of child birth and infant care while also working hard to put food on the table and raise strong and healthy families,” Ernst said at a Capitol Hill press conference.

Democrats have long decried a lack of paid family leave in the United States and offered their own proposals, including one financed by expanding payroll taxes.

Republicans have come to embrace paid family leave as a policy goal, with President Donald Trump highlighting it in his State of the Union addresses and budget proposals, but have resisted paying for it through new taxes.

Under Ernst and Lee’s plan, benefit levels would be determined by the same formula used for Social Security disability. Recipients would have to meet certain work requirements.

Those qualifying would receive one, two or three months of benefits in exchange for delaying activation of their Social Security retirement benefits by two, four or six months.

They said the plan would be budget-neutral over the long term but that in the short term it would cost about $8 billion to $9 billion a year. They said they’re looking for ways to offset that cost.

The senators were flanked by women and children from the Independent Women’s Forum, including Patrice Onwuka, a senior policy analyst with the advocacy group.

“Many Americans actually need more of the money when they’re younger, when your budgets are tighter and when your salaries are smaller, than later on in life,” Onwuka said. “And so that’s a choice they deserve to have.”

But even some fellow Republicans have concerns about that Social Security approach.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., authored her own paid leave pilot program that was included in the GOP tax overhaul. That program would provide tax credits to employers who offer paid family leave.

Fischer said she worked closely with AARP on her own program and described Ernst’s bill as “raiding” Social Security.

“I have no desire to raid Social Security,” Fischer said.

She also characterized her approach as more comprehensive than Ernst’s because it covers not just new parents but those who need time off to care for a sick child or an ailing parent.

“I think that’s important in helping families cope with the responsibilities that they have today,” Fischer said. “I think that more-encompassing approach is better.”

Asked about Fischer’s program, Ernst said hers would be available to all Americans across the board.

“This will apply to everyone, where a tax credit for a business is something that that business would need to opt in to or take advantage of,” Ernst said.

Fischer said her pilot program has been held up by slow-moving government bureaucracy so Congress will need to act again to extend it.

She said she hopes lawmakers do so in a bipartisan fashion.

“We’ve got a plan on the books, in law now, that I think we should move forward on,” Fischer said.

Higher ed representatives oppose bill on campus sexual assault response

Campus assaults. When Anna Marie Stenka was sexually assaulted by a fellow student two years ago, she sought help from her University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor.

Instead of offering help filing an official report and providing information about counseling and other resources, she said, the professor advised her to be more careful how she presented herself so as not to give others the wrong idea.

“During one of the most terrifying and traumatic times of my life, I felt completely and utterly alone with no assistance,” Stenka told members of the Education Committee on Tuesday.

She and other assault survivors told their stories in support of Legislative Bill 702, the Campus Safety Act, introduced by State Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh of Omaha.

The bill would set out requirements for how Nebraska colleges and universities handle sexual assaults and domestic violence involving students, both on and off campus. Among other things, it calls for trauma-informed policies, reasonable accommodations for victims, reporting and investigation guidelines and prevention training.

Cavanaugh described the bill as a matter of public safety.

But representatives of the University of Nebraska, the State College System and community colleges opposed the measure, saying it would reach too far into the governance of their institutions and could conflict with new federal regulations that are in the works.

Tami Strickman, the Title IX coordinator for UNL, said the university is committed to preventing sexual misconduct and has taken numerous steps to improve its response to sexual assaults and domestic violence.

“No student should ever have to feel unsafe,” she said.

Bills in previous years aimed at beefing up campus responses to sexual assault and domestic violence have met with similar opposition.

Payday lending. Advocates for the poor and elderly turned out in force Tuesday to oppose two bills that would expand payday lending services in Nebraska.

Legislative Bill 379 would allow regulation of online payday lenders, which backers say would increase oversight and opponents maintained would expand a service that already charges exorbitant interest rates (upward of 400 percent) and pushes people who can least afford it into deeper and deeper debt.

A second proposal, LB 265, would allow payday lenders to make larger loans, up to $1,000, and allow longer pay-back periods of a minimum of six months.

But representatives of Lincoln’s Appleseed Center, Omaha’s Voices for Children and others said that what’s needed are better consumer protections and lower interest rates, not expansion of the payday loans.

Ken Smith of the Appleseed Center said his calculation, under LB 265, is that a person obtaining a $1,000 loan who made $24,000 a year would end up taking 15 months to pay back the loan at a cost of $2,800.

Representatives of payday lenders said that they fill a lending “gap” for small loans that is not filled by banks or credit unions and that high interest rates are necessary because of the high default rate on such loans.