Best Beginnings Scholarship expansion clears initial House vote with bipartisan support
On its first floor vote Monday, 23 House Republicans joined all 32 Democrats to advance Bozeman Democratic Rep. Alice Buckley’s bill to expand the Best Beginnings Scholarship program, which provides child care scholarships for low-income families in Montana.
Three Republicans spoke up in favor of House Bill 648, saying it would be a benefit for Montana businesses working to hire more workers in Montana’s tight job market while also lowering child care costs that have increased for some of the state’s lowest wage workers.
Some Republicans who ended up voting against the measure decried the estimated $7 million a year the expansion of the scholarship program would cost while growing scholarship access to another estimated 723 children and capping those families’ copays into the program.
But Rep. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, urged his Republican colleagues to look at HB648 like a businessperson, saying the bill would cost state taxpayers roughly $200 a month to help low-income families return to the workforce because they could afford child care.
“I’m completely happy with my tax dollars going to a system that’s going to get me one or two more employees every month, because those employees are worth a heck of a lot more than that to me,” he said. “We’ve got to put this into perspective that as employers, we are dying for workers. This is a great way to support the kids, get them into a good child care setting, and to support their parents, get them into the workforce, and help our businesses be successful.”
Rep. Bob Barker, R-Roberts, also called for a yes vote on the bill, calling it a “strong workforce tool” that would have a positive impact on hiring, which he said deserved a deeper discussion in the House Appropriations Committee.
Buckley told the chamber it should think about the program like any other that provides incentives for workforce development, and said Montana was falling behind its neighbors in child care investments.
As she did in discussion in the House Human Services Committee, Buckley outlined how moving the eligibility for the program from 150% back to 185% of the Federal Poverty Level, as it was during the pandemic. She said it would allow families making only $27,000 a year as single parents, and $42,000 a year for couples, to better afford child care and not worry that a raise at work or taking a part-time job would put them above the cap to qualify.
Further, she said, the 9% cap on a sliding scale for copays families would need to pay under the program would help them keep more money to pay for other things like rent and food.
“This is a workforce and economic development bill. It will provide a stabilizing force across the state for child care for an industry that’s barely hanging on,” Buckley said.
Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls, said the state needed more child care facilities and people who wanted to work at them and said the bill “does nothing” to get providers where they hope to be. Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle, called the bill a setback for other families that wouldn’t benefit from the scholarship expansion.
Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Churchill, said she preferred putting the extra money toward mothers who stay at home to care for their children. And Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, questioned why any taxpayer money was being moved around to fund more child care.
“So, I ask, is this the proper role of government to take by force of taxation, from one person, to give to other people to fund their child care?” Fielder asked. “If that is the proper role of government, then I’m in the wrong place.”
But Rep. Tom Welch, R-Dillon, urged the House to pass the measure on its second House reading. He said he received a letter from a special education specialist in his district whose child care center served a single mother, who works as an elementary school teacher, who earns $35,000 a year, whose copay rose to $740 per month earlier this year when pandemic caps reverted.
In closing, Buckley told the floor that while more was needed to address the child care crisis in Montana, her bill was a start to the process and should be advanced for further consideration.
“Every community across the state needs more access to affordable day care, and this bill is a step in the right direction,” she said.
The bill now moves on to the House Appropriations Committee ahead of next week’s deadline for appropriations bills to pass one chamber. Should it advance out of the committee, it would face another House floor vote before moving on to the Senate.