child care

Aly Richards, CEO of Lets Grow Kids, speaks during a press conference with Congressman Peter Welch outside of Sunrise Family Resource Center in Bennington last summer.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

MONTPELIER — A proposal aimed at making child care in Vermont more affordable has passed the state House of Representatives with broad support.

The bill, H. 171, considered as part of a busy House agenda Wednesday and Thursday, expands the eligibility for the Child Care Financial Assistance Program (CCFAP) to eliminate payments for families with an annual gross income of less than or equal to 150 percent of the current federal poverty guideline. It also provides subsidies for families with an annual gross income up to and including 350 percent of current federal poverty guidelines.

The bill passed a second reading vote 146-1 on Wednesday, with state Rep. Art Peterson, R-Rutland-2 the only no vote. It was passed and sent to the Senate on a third reading voice vote Thursday.

Lawmakers and the Scott administration both made addressing the affordability and availability of child care a priority for this session, cognizant of how how crucial child care availability proved to reopening the state’s economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic, three out of five Vermont children ages 0-5 lacked access to quality child care, according to the non-profit advocacy group Let’s Grow Kids.

The bill also provides tuition assistance and loan forgiveness to early childhood educators, with the eventual goal of increasing their wages and benefits. Early child care educators earn about half of what their counterparts earn as public kindergarten teachers.

Originally proposed, and now the subjects of short-term studies outlined by the bill, are potential changes in reimbursement criteria for state aid, and the financial impacts of making those changes.

The price tag for fiscal 2022 includes $5.5 million for the third year of the state’s five-year program redesign, and $2.5 million for scholarships and loan forgiveness.

The bill also charges experts to convene two studies to examine and identify strategies for effective governance of and sustainable funding for a truly affordable, high-quality child care system for Vermonters.

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

Let’s Grow Kids, a major proponent, said it is pleased by the progress made and commitment pledged in the House’s final product.

“[The House’s] steadfast commitment to the children, families, child care programs, and businesses of Vermont shines through in this bill,” Let’s Grow Kids CEO Aly Richards said in a news release. “Our movement of 30,000 Vermonters from all sectors have been working toward this kind of change for many, many years and it’s gratifying to see this important legislation moving forward.”

In third reading votes Thursday, the House also gave final approval to H. 183, a bill updating the state’s sexual assault laws to better define consent; H. 152, the so-called “yield bill” setting education property tax rates; H. 435, which contains a provision prohibiting sexual conduct between corrections officials and persons on furlough, probation or parole; H. 159, establishing the “Better Places” program; and H. 210, a bill addressing health access disparities for Black, indigenous and persons of color in Vermont. All are now bound for the Senate.

The day’s most contentious debate focused on second reading of a miscellaneous tax bill, H. 437, which contains a provision for a 0.5 percent surcharge on the property transfer tax for properties valued above $1 million. Revenue from the surcharge would be applied to helping lower-income homebuyers purchase and/or restore manufactured homes, Rep. Emilie Kornheiser, Windham-2-1, presenting the bill for the Ways & Means Committee, explained.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Lamoille 1, offered an amendment striking the proposed tax surcharge, saying the program could be funded by current property transfer tax revenues. She and other Republican lawmakers said the tax would hurt businesses and discourage investment in Vermont.

The amendment failed by a vote of 53-94, and it split the local delegation.

In Bennington County, Democrats Timothy Corcoran II, D-Bennington 2-1, and Linda Joy Sullivan, D-Bennington-Rutland, joined Republicans Sally Achey, R-Rutland-Bennington, and Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington 2-2, in supporting the amendment, while in Windham County, independents Kelly Pajala, I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor, and Laura Sibilia, I-Windham-Bennington, voted yes alongside Rep. John Gannon, D-Windham 5. The remainder of the region’s House members, all Democrats, all voted no.

The overall bill passed by roll call vote, 95-51, with local lawmakers who supported the amendment all voting against the bill. It’s scheduled for a third reading vote Friday.

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

Greg Sukiennik has worked at all three Vermont News & Media newspapers and was their managing editor from 2017-19. He previously worked for ESPN.com, for the AP in Boston, and at The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass.