The Montana State Capitol in Helena on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)
Rep. Alice Buckley’s Best Beginnings Scholarship expansion to provide relief for lower-income Montanans seeking child care options is headed to the governor’s desk after a final bipartisan vote in the Senate on Friday.
House Bill 648 from the Bozeman Democrat has been one of Democrats’ major priorities this session to get to the desk of Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte and has garnered the support of some Republicans, parents, the business community and child care providers as it made its way through the process – even being carried by Republican Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, in the Senate.
“I’m so proud and grateful for all the work that went into this,” Buckley said Friday afternoon. “It feels like from the beginning, it’s just been the result of so much collaboration and hard work in the building.”
HB648 passed its third reading in the Senate on Friday in a 29-20 vote, with support from Democrats and Republican Sens. Jason Ellsworth, Mike Cuffe, Fitzpatrick, Chris Friedel, Bruce Gillespie, Greg Hertz, Wendy McKamey, Walt Sales, Dan Salomon, Jason Small, Russ Tempel, Terry Vermeire, Jeff Welborn and Daniel Zolnikov. It also received bipartisan support in the House.
It will expand the child care scholarship program to an estimated 700 more working families in Montana living at up to 185% of the Federal Poverty Level and caps the copays they have to pay in for the program at 9% and puts those on a sliding scale.
The bill will cost an estimated $7 million a year but puts the eligibility level back to where it was during the COVID-19 pandemic up until Jan. 1, which proponents have said will give lower-income families more flexibility to afford both child care and other necessities, and also to free up more time to work.
Buckley’s bill puts the Best Beginnings Scholarship program into statute; it has been in Montana rules for 30 years and helps people pay for child care by having the Department of Public Health and Human Services pay facilities caring for a child when their parents pay the copay.
Buckley said Friday she is “really happy” with the final product and that she was surprised the bill went through Senate committees and the Senate floor without further changes. The bill was tweaked in the House with amendments that Buckley said involved compromises.
“The three changes it makes to the existing program are really going to make a really big difference for providers and for parents,” she said.
The bill squeaked through the Senate Finance and Claims Committee in a 10-9 vote, with bipartisan support, despite some questioning why a major mining company was there testifying on the bill and why parents weren’t just staying at home to raise their kids like their families did.
“My view is the best beginning for a child is for a mom or a dad to be home with the child,” said Sen. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, when the committee took executive action on the bill.
Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, argued there was already plenty of other funding for the program and that Montanans needed to work at a job that paid them enough that they could pay for child care.
But on the floor Thursday, Fitzpatrick told the Senate he was carrying and supporting the bill because of his own experiences with his wife trying to afford child care for their kids.
“If this is hard for me, it’s got to be hard for everybody,” he said. “… If you can provide a way to keep more people working, I think you have a way of making more productive citizens and making Montana a more prosperous place.”
On Friday afternoon, he said he was paying more for child care than for his mortgage, and that others who had lower incomes were understandably paying more than they could afford with the rest of their bills.
Buckley said she appreciated the bipartisan support and the array of organizations and interests that testified in favor of her bill and helped her craft and amend one that would make the finish line.
“Child care feels like one of the issues in this building that there’s still bipartisan interest and bipartisan buy-in to those important things that are sacred to me, and so I wanted to keep it that way,” she said. “(Fitzpatrick) felt like a natural sponsor because he’s also one of those who’s willing to talk about that experience.”
Buckley said the Governor’s Office, which she has spoken with through the process, has been non-committal about signing the bill, but she added that is how the office has been for most bills.
“What I’ve continued to tell him is that it will be a huge win for him,” she said. “It’s a huge win for Montana. We just haven’t passed a piece of central child care policy like this before, and the COVID provisions, which this bill returns us to, made a huge difference for our communities … so it’s a huge win to go back to those, so I’m hopeful he’ll sign it for that reason.”
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