Rep. Buckley’s Best Beginnings Scholarship expansion moves forward

By: - March 22, 2023 6:24 pm

The Montana State Capitol building in subzero temperatures on Dec. 21, 2022 (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

A bill that aims to expand eligibility for a scholarship that helps lower-income Montanans pay for child care and could help another 723 children is moving forward after some tweaks and a bipartisan vote.

Rep. Alice Buckley’s House Bill 648 passed the House Human Services Committee on Friday, as amended, on a 13-8 vote, with six Republicans joining all seven Democrats on the committee to advance the measure.

The bill, which would put the Best Beginnings Scholarship program into statute, was amended from the version heard earlier in the week based off some of the testimony and input from the committee, the Bozeman Democrat said.

The amendments clarified that registered child care providers were eligible to provide care through the scholarship program and moved the eligibility cap for people to be eligible from 200% down to 185% of the Federal Poverty Line.

That is the cap that was in place during the COVID-19 pandemic until earlier this year, when it moved back down to the 150% that was in place before the pandemic.

Further, the amendments say the maximum income by which a family can qualify for the scholarship cannot be higher than what is allowed under the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant.

An updated fiscal note released and signed by Buckley on Wednesday said that with the sliding scale up to 185% of the Federal Poverty Line, an additional 723 children could be served through the scholarship program on top of the 2,900 already eligible. The added eligibility would cost the state an estimated $568,000 per month, and about $7.1 million annually over the next two years.

Sliding scale copayments are capped at 9% under the amended bill for people earning up to 185% of the Federal Poverty Line. They were originally set at a 7% cap for people earning 100% to 200% of the Federal Poverty Line under the original version of the bill.

Buckley told the committee the amendments got the Department of Public Health and Human Services what they hoped for to move forward with supporting the bill.

She said that there was “some concern” shown at the initial hearing about the $10 copayment for the lowest earners and that the sliding scale for copayments applying to everyone would still ensure the measure was not a deterrent to people working more or thinking about accepting raises. Further, she said, the 9% caps would still keep people from paying an outsized portion of their paychecks – 25% to 35%, or up to $500 to $700, said Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula – toward copayments for the child care scholarship.

“As we started digging in to pull up child policy solutions for child care, I think especially in the copay piece, it was pretty alarming that we have a program like this that really disincentivizes work,” Buckley said. “… Of course [185%] is a compromise, but it gets us to where we were during COVID. And then the provider reimbursement rate is incredibly important in terms of what we heard from providers over the interim.”

“So I think it’s in a really solid place and has a long journey ahead of it.”

Heather O’Loughlin, the executive director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, said during last week’s hearing on the bill, before it was amended, that a single parent making $14 per hour would see their copay decrease from $320 per month to $85 per month under the initial proposal. Families between 140% and 160% of the federal poverty level currently pay from $322 to $446 a month in copays, but that would drop to $107 a month under the measure, O’Laughlin said.

The funding for the expanded eligibility is not tied to a proposed Appropriations Committee budget amendment that would have added $9 million to the program each of the next two years, which was not adopted. Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, said the failure to adopt the amendment was “a tragedy.”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said Tuesday she believes Buckley’s bill has “strong bipartisan support” and said she and Buckley had spoken with Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte this week about doing more to address child care costs this session.

“We’ll keep pushing on these issues,” Abbott said.

In addition to the seven House Human Services Committee members who voted to send the bill to the House floor, where it could have a hearing this week, Democrats said, the six Republicans who voted in favor in the committee were Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls; Rep. Tom Welch, R-Dillon; Rep. Greg Frazer, R-Deer Lodge; Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings; Rep. Greg Oblander, R-Bililngs; and Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.