Pajala

Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor

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MONTPELIER — A bill proposing a significant overhaul of the state’s early child care system is set to depart the House Human Services Committee looking a good deal different than how it arrived.

Many of H. 171‘s ambitious goals remain intact, or are already part of Gov. Phil Scott’s budget: Expanding eligibility for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP) and building an information technology system to make the expanded program run are already planned. Scholarships and loan forgiveness for students pursuing education in early child care are also part of the bill.

But the bill’s other priorities — lowering the cost of child care to no more than 10 percent of household gross income and setting minimum salaries for child care workers to improve quality and employee retention — have been rewritten as short-term or long-term studies to determine cost, and potential revenue sources to meet those costs.

That decision was made last week, after the House Human Services Committee heard from administration officials that the cost of the proposal, which would cap child care tuition at 10 percent of gross household income, set higher reimbursement rates and establish minimum salaries for child care care workers, could exceed $300 million.

With the crossover deadline approaching and time running out for the Commerce, Education, Appropriations and Ways & Means committees to review the bill, the Human Services Committee split into smaller work groups last week to make edits and changes to the latest draft. While most lawmakers have this week off, committee members are still working on the proposal, with the hope of agreeing to and voting out the revised bill Tuesday morning.

For first-term legislator Rep. Dane Whitman, D-Bennington 2-1, there’s optimism that the final product will improve affordability for Vermont families, while setting the stage for additional improvements.

“It seems very promising that we’ll be able to increase the [Child Care Financial Aid Program] eligibility for the full benefit from 100 percent [of the federal poverty limit] to 150 percent, which will make it more affordable for more families, and also set the maximum cap at 350 percent. That’s a big shift,” Whitman said. “That’s going to happen.”

Legislative leaders have made addressing child care affordability and accessibility a priority for legislative leaders this term, and lawmakers in all three parties have signed onto H. 171 as supporters. Advocates, notably the nonprofit Let’s Grow Kids, say 3 out of 5 Vermont children do not have access to high quality child care, and that low salaries for early childhood educators are forcing talented teachers out of the profession.

What evolved over hours of effort last week from the committee and its legislative counsel, Katie McLinn, was a proposal that would move three major components of the bill into studies: How the state will determine eligibility for CCFAP reimbursements, what rate it should pay, and how much it will all cost.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic the state reimbursed families based on enrollment to make sure providers, caring for the children of essential workers, could remain in business. And committee members heard that applying that standard also helps families retain placements they might otherwise lose. But the enrollment standard is more expensive, and the committee wants to know how much more.

Another study being sought is whether CCFAP aid should be based on 50 percent of the statewide market rate for child care, or whether it should be based on a yet-to-be determined formula accounting for the actual cost of care. The latter would likely cost more, but advocates say that would inject funding into a money-starved system by reflecting real costs rather than artificially low rates charged by providers.

Committee members are also considering whether the state can lower the maximum household contribution to 10 percent within the CCFAP program for the coming fiscal year.

After discussion, the committee agreed to adding the financial impact of those changes to the studies ordered in the bill.

“I feel reluctant to make a definitive policy change because there are so many variables right now that are unknown,” committee member Rep. Theresa Wood said during discussion on Friday. “If we don’t put out what our goal is we’re not going to know what it takes to move toward that goal.”

The discussion hit another obstacle when Melissa Riegel-Garrett, the policy director for the child development division of the Department of Children and Families, said the changes in financial aid envisioned for fiscal 2022 won’t be possible unless the computer system is updated by Oct. 1. That came as a surprise to committee members.

Rep. Kelly Pajala, I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor, wanted to know how that would affect families who might be counting on lower child care rates. “As someone who has lived every penny paycheck to paycheck, if I knew the bill was going to suddenly reduced and it didn’t, that would have significant consequences,” Pajala said.

Riegel-Garrett said the system upgrade is a high priority for the department, and the committee decided to stand by the Oct. 1 date.

Pajala, as a working mother who also serves as Londonderry Town Clerk, knows what it’s like to stretch a household budget to pay for child care. That effort was worth it for her children, she said.

“We were paying as much as we were paying for our mortgage payment every month to have them in a program, which was partially so that we could both be working as parents, but also because it was right,” Pajala said in an interview. “It’s amazing what happens when kids are amongst other kids and amongst adults to encourage them.”

Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers. Reach him at gsukiennik@reformer.com.

Greg Sukiennik joined New England Newspapers as a reporter at The Berkshire Eagle in 1995. He worked for The AP in Boston, and at ESPN.com, before rejoining NENI in 2016. He was managing editor of all three NENI Vermont newspapers from 2017-19.

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