MINNEAPOLIS–After a voluntary paid leave program for new parents almost won approval here this year, progressive family advocates are busy building the political muscle needed to push the innovative pilot plan through the state legislature.

The Children’s Defense Fund of Minnesota is leading the campaign for a voluntary paid parental leave program, a modest proposal reflecting realistic goals in a state with major tax cut momentum and no unemployment insurance surplus. The fund and its supporters are seeking more support from businesses as well as women’s advocacy groups in order to increase the leave time.

“There is a good chance Minnesota’s proposal will pass,” next time, said Su Sie Ju, policy counsel at the National Partnership for Women and Families. “We are very hopeful Minnesota will be able to be in the forefront in providing family benefits for workers.”

Marcie Jefferys, director of fiscal policy for the Children’s Defense Fund in Minnesota, said the fall agenda is to bring more people together in support of legislation. “It was largely low-income and progressive family groups” that backed the proposal in the last session, she said.

Minnesota is in the forefront of planners. The Massachusetts legislature, still in session, could enact a paid parental leave plan this year. Two bills are pending there: one would extend unemployment benefits to cover family and medical leaves; the other would create a “family and employment security trust fund.”

The proposal is getting positive reviews, especially for the cost-sharing, from groups including the Women’s Consortium, the statewide organization of pro-choice women’s groups, and the American Association of University Women. ECM Publishers, a statewide newspaper publishing firm, also testified in the legislature on behalf of the pilot project.

Virtually all states have mandated some sort of unpaid parental leave. In Minnesota, unpaid parental leave has been the law for 13 years and medical disability insurance has funded some maternal leaves. So far, however, no state has enacted a paid “parental” leave, per se, relying instead on general medical disability insurance or unemployment insurance to fund family leaves.

Minnesota’s proposal is unique, innovative and it relies on voluntary contributions of one-third each from employers, the state and employees who would forego wages. The proposal would cap employer and state subsidies at $250 each. For low-income workers, the minimum would be $100 a week from each source. It would be open to all employees. Though it is far from universal in coverage, it has broad appeal.

Minnesota and five other states currently rely on medical disability insurance to fund some maternal leaves after childbirth, but require a physical “incapacity.” The other states are California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island.

California, Connecticut, New York, New Hampshire and Illinois are studying whether, when and how to establish paid family leave benefits.

States are experimenting with paid leave plans in part because of the unpopularity of a federal plan.

Beginning last year and culminating in a federal regulation published last month, the Clinton administration tried to jump-start paid parental leave by offering states encouragement to tap unemployment assets. So far, there are no takers.

However, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Washington, using unemployment insurance is a promising option, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, D.C. The National Employment Law Project has been working primarily on strategies to use unemployment insurance to fund parental leaves.

Experts on the fiscal and political aspects of unemployment insurance say employers are wary of expanding the demand on these funds because the employer bears all the cost and when the economy cools, the funds will be needed to pay jobless workers.

Labor Department records show that unemployment benefits vary, averaging $200 a week nationwide. That is less than the benefits in Minnesota’s proposal. The proposal that failed in the final hours of the legislative session would have funneled $1 million in state funds into the voluntary paid leave experiment, leveraging leaves for 500 new parents. A fully operational version of the plan would not exceed $15.6 million in state funds annually because not all employers would participate, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.

Glenda Crank Holste is a Twin Cities journalist who has covered social and economic policy issues for 10 years.