Apr 30, 2021

Bill to make a big investment in child care clears the Senate

A bill that creates a path for Vermont families to pay no more than 10% of their income on child care has cleared the Senate unanimously.

H.171 must still technically go back to the House, which passed the measure 146-to-1 in late March. But there are few differences to reconcile. Senate and House leaders held a joint press conference Friday to celebrate the bill’s passage.

“We know that when parents can’t find or can’t afford child care, businesses lose out. Our communities lose out. Our economy loses out. And we heard Vermonters when they told us that they needed help with child care, and we have acted,” Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, said during the virtual press conference.

While the legislation names an aggressive long-term policy goal, it does not enact it and is silent on how the state should pay for it. Instead, the bill would assign a consultant to price out the proposal and report back to lawmakers by January 2023.

In the short term, the bill makes $12.7 million in new investments in Vermont’s child care system as soon as the fiscal year begins July 1.

H.171 puts an additional $5.5 million next fiscal year toward the state’s child care subsidy program for low-income Vermonters, which will allow the state to expand eligibility and lower copays. A single parent with an infant and a preschooler who makes $15 an hour, for example, would go from paying $115 out-of-pocket a week for child care now to paying nothing next year, according to an analysis by the Department for Children and Families.

The bill also provides $4.5 million to DCF so it can update its IT system to handle all the changes.

The child care industry’s low wages have created a perpetual workforce shortage. Several lawmakers on the Senate floor described their own challenges affording child care, and Sen. Chris Pearson, P/D-Chittenden, recalled bumping into one of his children’s former preschool teachers, only to discover she had left the profession.

“She left working at preschool — a job she loved — to bus tables, Madam President, to bus tables. She could make more money busing tables than looking after my kid. That’s criminal,” Pearson said, addressing Balint.

H.171 includes $2.5 million in financial incentives for early childhood educators, including scholarships and loan repayment assistance. Both programs will operate on a first-come, first-served basis until the funds are depleted, and workers cannot participate in both programs at once. The financing study due back to lawmakers in January 2023 would have to include cost estimates for paying child care providers’ salaries to “commensurate with peers in other fields,” essentially putting them on par with K-12 educators.

Ensuring that no Vermont family spends more than 10% of their income on child care would take an unprecedented public investment in early childhood, and it is no surprise that lawmakers are proposing a study for now. But the extra time will also allow Vermont to see if some of President Biden’s aggressive child care investment proposals make it through Congress, which could make any state-level reforms a much easier lift.

“I think there may be some exciting opportunities there,” House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, said of the White House proposals.

Gov. Phil Scott has repeatedly named child care as a top priority, although he has frequently clashed with Democratic leaders in the Legislature about how to fund it. His administration previously raised concerns about the legislation, but Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for the governor, wrote in an email Friday that the administration is much more comfortable with the current version.

The governor’s proposed budget, which he unveiled in January, also included the $5.5 million in extra funding for subsidies and $4.5 million for IT upgrades.

Click here to read this story on VTDigger.org. 

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