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An embryonic idea

Missoula's parental leave plan breeds controversy

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Last week, councilwoman Emily Bentley presented the Missoula City Council with the first part of a proposal to give city employees six weeks of paid parental leave. While she plans to ultimately implement 12 weeks of leave, she and Central Services Director Steve Johnson wisely decided to divide both the plan and their presentation of it into three parts.

This approach will cut down on confusion: A three-part plan presented via a three-part proposal delivered by two people makes almost perfect sense. One presumes that by the time the second part of the proposal reveals the second part of the plan, Bentley and Johnson will have added a third presenter—hopefully, someone wearing a clown suit. Until then, we can only consider the presentation we have.

Back in June, when Bentley first proposed 12 weeks of paid leave, the finance committee shied away, citing the expense. The police and fire departments estimated that it would cost $150,000 a year in overtime pay to cover shifts missed by new parents. This early version of Bentley's proposal fell victim to a classic mistake: too many details.

Once you start throwing out specific numbers about how much things will cost and where that money will come from, people get confused. And confusion lives next door to fear, as the old saying goes, just across the road from Panic Mart. This time around, Bentley avoided spooking her fellow council members by giving them a proposal that was less than a page long.

As he took questions from the council, Johnson similarly hewed to a reassuring vagueness. He emphasized that he had not yet written any policy or even a formal proposal. His very research remained preliminary, but he said he had initially considered paying substitute employees from the general fund, or possibly by increasing city insurance premiums—although that might present a problem, since not every city employee uses city insurance.

Again, I commend this approach. The more detailed a plan becomes, the more people start coming up with "concerns" and "objections." Talking about costs in terms of "numbers" only encourages egghead types to claim those numbers "add up" to more money than the city actually "has."

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That's not how you get things done. If you want the City of Missoula to do something, whether it's implementing paid parental leave or buying the water works, you need to forge ahead with a single-sentence plan and let the numbers take care of themselves. Bentley's plan hasn't reached that level of dynamic brevity quite yet, but it's on its way.

Given all these plaudits, you might think I'm in favor of paid parental leave for city employees. But alas, this is the kind of governmental mollycoddling up with which I will not put. While I applaud Bentley's willingness to simplify this three-part plan into a three-part proposal whose only other number is six, I'm afraid there's one element she failed to consider: moral hazard.

If we start paying people to stay home from work for six weeks just because they had a kid, what's to stop them from knocking out a baby every time they want a vacation? Every cop who is sick of walking the beat and every firefighter tired of fetching kittens out of trees will know they're just nine months and one D'Angelo album away from easy street. The city coffers will be drained, as meter readers, assessors and parks supervisors alike line up to suckle at the government teat.

We all know city employees are terribly attractive. If we remove the economic obstacle to breeding with them, this town will be veritably overrun. My own statistical research, conducted at brunch, finds that Missoula is already 55 percent babies. That number could easily reach 90 percent, once every bearded stoop finds out he can get a month and a half of government-subsidized fly fishing simply by impregnating a city employee.

Adults aren't the only people this policy stands to ruin, though. What about the children themselves? In a state of nature, a human baby becomes fully independent of its mother after the first two weeks. But once government starts getting involved, keeping their parents around the house to indulge their every whim, the babies of Missoula will have no incentive to get jobs or purchase homes. Their characters will be stunted. The very fabric of society will come unglued.

For these reasons, I cannot support Bentley's proposal for paid parental leave, despite the admirable vagueness with which she has presented it. The moral hazard is simply too great. Let us reserve our city funds for more pressing needs, like installing gongs in public playgrounds, and keep the infants of Missoula in day care where they belong.

Dan Brooks writes about culture, lived experience, and the moral weakness of today's babies at combatblog.net.

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