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A section of a bill greatly expanding financial aid eligibility for child care and increasing early educator wages calls for a feasibility study seeking a funding source for the significant investment it proposes.

But that’s not as easy as it looks, the Vermont House Human Services Committee heard Tuesday, as it continued work on H. 171.

The committee heard from potential study participants who don’t want to participate; that some of the data the study would collect does not presently exist; and that the price tag is significant.

As drafted, the bill calls on the State Treasurer, the Auditor, Joint Fiscal Office, the Commissioner of Finance, and the Commissioner of Taxes to deliver that study by January 15 of next year. It’s a key element of a proposal intended to reduce the per-household contribution for child care to 10 percent of gross household income, while raising wages in an industry where early wages are low and benefits are hard to come by.

But Auditor Doug Hoffer and members of the Legislative Joint Fiscal Office begged out of leadership roles in such a study on Wednesday, saying participation would present a potential conflict of interest.

And the committee heard from Finance and Management Commissioner Adam Greshin that the proposal was likely to cost $300 million, according to his agency’s “back of the envelope” estimate.

Department of Children and Families Commissioner Sean Brown previously told the committee the price tag is between $300 million and $500 million.

Let’s Grow Kids, the advocacy group that has pushed for the legislation, has said the additional cost is closer to the $206 million gap identified by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Financing High Quality, Affordable Child Care in 2016.

The initiative is a priority for legislative leaders as an educational and economic need for the state. Supporters say money spent on the program will stay in the state and lead to better outcomes for children.

A LOT TO THINK ABOUT

In conversation after testimony, committee member and bill lead sponsor Rep. Jessica Brumsted, D-Chittenden 5-2, said her head was swimming.

“I do think what [fellow committee member Rep. Theresa Wood] said is absolutely true — everyone agrees we need to understand more,” Brumsted said.

Another co-sponsor, Rep. Francis McFaun, R-Washington 2, said he was “a little bewildered” by what he heard.

“The commitment I had to this was immense. I still have that commitment, that feeling of we need to do something. I don’t know now if the timeline here is correct,” McFaun said.

“The emotional commitment is there, no question. But now I’m concerned about the money, and the federal government is not going to fund this thing for us. I know they’re not,” McFaun added.

Greshin, emphasizing he was speaking only about the section of the bill dealing with the study, sought to put the $300 million estimate in context.

“The entire general fund budget for the Department of Children and Families is $163 million, of which a third is for CCFAP (Child Care Financial Assistance Program),” he said. “We’re talking about an amount larger than any single department in state government with the sole exception of the Human Services central office.”

Greshin also stressed in testimony, and under questioning from committee chairperson Rep. Ann Pugh, D-Chittenden 7-2, that the administration supports making child care more accessible and more affordable, and has made budget proposals to that end every year Scott has been in office. He noted that the state is in the third year of a five-year revamp of the CCFAP program, which Scott supported.

“We’re moving in incremental steps ... steps we can afford,” Greshin said.

WITHDRAWING FROM CONSIDERATION

According to Brumsted, Hoffer said he could not be involved in the study, as “he should not be on a committee working on policy or a decision he might be auditing at a later date.”

Then, Joint Fiscal Office senior economist Joyce Manchester and senior fiscal analyst Nolan Langweil told the committee that JFO can’t get involved as a lead agency for the study.

“We’re independent — we work for the legislature,” Langweil said. “This would require us to come to a consensus and do negotiations with other parties, then turn around and have to advocate for it to the Legislature. We don’t think that’s an appropriate role for JFO.”

“We want to be emphatic: It is not our role to tell the legislature what policy they should adopt,” Manchester added.

Manchester further said that it would be “challenging” to find some of the data being sought.

“We do not have data on families who use child care or could use child care,” she said. “We have some data on families already in CCFAP but no data on families with small children. Yes, there is tax data, but not all families file taxes.”

However, Manchester said, there is existing research “on the value of early childhood education ... evidence we could draw on so we’re not starting from scratch.”

Testimony on the bill is scheduled to continue in the House Human Services Committee the rest of this week. Reps. Kelly Pajala, I-Windham-Bennington-Windsor, and Dane Whitman, D-Bennington 2-1, are members of the panel.

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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