Mar 9, 2021

Child care bill clears House committee, sets ambitious 2025 goal

A bill that sets an ambitious goal — that no Vermont family will pay more than 10% of its household income on child care by 2025 — unanimously cleared the House Human Services committee Tuesday.

But while H.171 sets an aggressive policy goal, it does not say how Vermont should meet it. Instead, the bill tasks a consultant with pricing out the proposal and reporting back to lawmakers by January 2023.

“This bill represents a step forward. We have set a goal,” said the committee’s chair, Rep. Ann Pugh, D-South Burlington. The bill also took “very concrete steps” to make incremental changes in the short term, she said.

The bill puts an additional $5.5 million next year toward the state’s child care subsidy program for low-income Vermonters, which would allow the state to lower the cost to eligible families. 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 child care industry’s low wages have created a perpetual workforce shortage, and H.171 includes financial incentives for early childhood educators. The legislation provides $1.8 million for student loan repayment assistance for child care workers next year and $700,000 for scholarships. Both programs will operate on a first-come, first-served basis until funds are depleted, and workers cannot participate in both programs at once.

A tri-partisan consensus around the importance of child care had been emerging before the pandemic, but the coronavirus crisis put the issue in the spotlight.

The bill still has a long way to go. It has yet to be voted on by the Legislature’s money committees — let alone the full House or Senate. But child care is top of mind for Democratic leaders in both chambers. And with two-thirds of House lawmakers co-sponsoring H.171, the legislation has significant momentum behind it.

“We know now more than ever that child care is essential,” said Sarah Kenney, policy director for Let’s Grow Kids, a child care advocacy group. “And I think the work that the committee did on this bill, and the thoughtful approach that they took to it, really demonstrates their understanding of that — and their commitment to making lasting change.”

Boosting child care has been a longtime priority for Gov. Phil Scott, and administration officials have said they support the legislation’s big-picture goals in concept. But they are also concerned that, by setting such an aggressive policy goal before actually pricing out the proposal, lawmakers are getting ahead of themselves.

Still, when it comes to H.171’s near-term proposals to modestly boost low-income child care subsidies, the governor is basically in agreement. His recommended budget, which he unveiled in January, includes $5.5 million in additional funding for child care subsidies and $4.5 million for IT upgrades at the Department for Children and Families to implement the changes. (The bill also contemplates spending exactly these amounts on subsidies and IT upgrades.)

As is, the bill would cost about $13.3 million in total next year, according to a legislative analysis. That’s only about $3.3 million more than the governor’s budget envisioned spending on child care reform in the coming year.

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