House advances two child care bills ahead of Tuesday’s budget deadline

Measure to create child care trust fund voted down

By: - April 3, 2023 8:11 pm
Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, discusses one of her three bills aimed at bolstering the child care industry in Montana heard on the House floor on Monday, April 3, 2023, ahead of Tuesday's transmittal deadline.

Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, discusses one of her three bills aimed at bolstering the child care industry in Montana heard on the House floor on Monday, April 3, 2023, ahead of Tuesday’s transmittal deadline. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

As Montana tries to figure out how to address a mix of child care provider shortages, increasing costs, and parents hoping to get back in the workforce, the House advanced two bills from Rep. Alice Buckley and voted down another that sought to address some of the issues more permanently.

The Bozeman Democrat’s House Bill 648 passed second reading Monday in a 51-49 vote, with four votes in favor fewer than when it passed second reading a week ago before being sent to the House Appropriations Committee.

The bill aims to expand the Best Beginnings Scholarship program to an estimated 700 more low-income families in Montana by moving eligibility levels back to where they were during the pandemic, from 150% to 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, capping copays at 9%, and putting them on a sliding scale.

A fiscal note estimates the expansion would cost an estimated $7 million each year, but another fiscal note was requested after the bill passed second reading Monday.

The floor discussion from Republicans on Monday – a day before Tuesday’s transmittal deadline for appropriations, revenue and constitutional referendum bills – centered primarily around why the legislature needed to put the program into statute and appropriate money for extra child care support.

“With this proposal to expand costs, we are forcing on more costs for people that already are paying for their own child care if they need it and working at the same time,” said Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle. “If the market isn’t willing to pay the wage it takes to cover the costs of the employee to be there, maybe they shouldn’t be there.”

Rep. SJ Howell, D-Missoula, who sponsored a similar bill earlier this session, pushed back on some views voiced on the floor by Republicans ahead of the vote. Howell has helped explain how the program works through the committee process given the similarity of their legislation to Buckley’s.

Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, told the chamber that a person working 15 hours a week would be allowed to have their child take a full-time slot at a child care center under the scholarship program, when the bill and program say otherwise.

The bill says the Department of Public Health and Human Services pays a rate to child care facilities “based on a child’s authorized enrollment slot,” which Howell explained was determined through a screening process in which parents have to submit how many hours they are working or going to school. The screening agency then determines the scholarship amounts based on that total.

“If you’re working 15 hours a week, they’ll maybe give you 20 hours (of scholarship funding) a week,” Howell said. “The idea folks are getting the scholarship when working 60 hours a month just isn’t happening.”

Regarding some concerns about the reimbursement rate, Howell explained that it ensures providers are still paid even when a child misses some days of care because they are sick, for instance.

Howell also addressed concerns that the federal child care and development block grant program that helps fund the scholarship program might someday go away and leave lawmakers on the hook to pay for the program in full. Howell said that was “deeply unlikely to happen” and would require an “historic change in funding” currently going toward every state.

A 2021 report from DPHHS, Kids Count Montana and the Department of Labor and Industry found an estimated 32,000 parents with children under age 6 were working and relying on child care to remain in the labor force – about 6% of the labor force. That same report found the child care capacity met 44% of the estimated demand.

Rep. Jane Gillette, R-Bozeman, said she was voting against the bill because it “doesn’t help the tight cost-of-living areas like Flathead and Gallatin.”

But Buckley pushed back in her closing, saying there were 3,600 children in Gallatin County who qualify for the scholarship at its current 150% FPL.

“There are so many good reasons to codify this program,” Buckley said. “It gives us legislative oversight; gives us transparency; gives the opportunity to say we’re putting state dollars into this program, which we were able to craft in a way that works for all of us here.”

Nineteen Republicans joined all 32 Democrats to move the bill forward to third reading Tuesday.

Initial approval for in-home daycare zoning

Buckley’s House Bill 918 passed second reading on a 78-22 vote. It changes zoning law so that in-home daycares registered by DPHHS qualify as residential properties, which Buckley said would allow for those daycares serving 15 or fewer children that are registered to continue operating.

Buckley said as more in-home daycare providers come online, some might not be licensed, and that the bill would “level the playing field” to allow Montanans more child care options.

A fiscal note for the bill says in-home providers would still have to register with DPHHS for child care licensing purposes, but that it would have no fiscal impact to the state because it “does not directly change child care licensing rules.”

A mix of Democrats and Republicans voted against the bill, including Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena.

Long-term funding for child care grants and scholarships voted down

Buckley’s third child care program, House Bill 967, was voted down 40-60, with eight Republicans joining Democrats in favor.

The bill sought to establish a child care special revenue account and trust fund that originally would have received $150 million from the coal severance tax permanent fund, but it was amended to receive only payable earnings from the account.

The trust fund would get the $150 million from the general fund, and the interest earnings from the trust fund would be deposited into a new child care account, which would be administered by DPHHS for child care scholarships or grants.

Buckley told the House that the child care crisis required multiple possible solutions and called the bill “one avenue for change” to try to recruit more child care workers and expand the child care landscape in Montana for the future.

“This is a bill that meets this moment in time with respect to child care,” she said.

Though another fiscal note was requested Monday after the bill was voted down, one that was published after the bill was amended in the House Taxation Committee found after the initial $150 million general fund transfer, the fund would generate approximately $6 million each year that would go to the scholarships or grants for child care expenses.

House Appropriations Chair Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, said while the legislature had not yet spent “a ton” on child care, it had overspent on other measures and was “right now running in the red.”

He said the legislature has about $1.2 billion left to disburse among $2.5 billion in requests in bills still moving.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.