A second effort to expand Montana parents' access to a child care scholarship program debuted Tuesday in the House Human Services Committee.
Rep. Alice Buckley, D-Bozeman, pitched her House Bill 648 as a pared-down version of an earlier proposal to raise the eligibility threshold for low-income qualifying parents to access to the Best Beginnings Scholarship program administered by the state health department.
The program allows parents at 150% of the federal poverty level to qualify for the scholarship. During the COVID-19 pandemic, that rate climbed to 185%, but the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services ended the higher rate at the beginning of the year, citing the end of federal money to support it.
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Buckley's bill would raise the rate to 200% of the federal poverty level, with a price tag of roughly $10 million per year.
“Investing in child care is central to our workforce and economic development in this state,” Buckley said. “This bill with a $10 million appropriation each year is an excellent return on investment in terms of dollars we can spend as a state into our workforce and to our families.”
The earlier attempt flipped the perspective away from the federal poverty level threshold, making families eligible for the child care scholarship if their family income did not exceed 85% of the state's median income. That penciled out to about 275% of the federal poverty level.
That proposal, House Bill 238, was tabled in committee roughly a month ago. Rep. Ed Buttrey, the committee's Republican vice chair, urged the committee to do so because it didn't have an appropriation and would have created a waiting list without the additional funding.
Rep. SJ Howell, who carried the earlier effort, agreed to table HB 238 in February and Buckley promised then there would be a second effort.
HB 648 would also set a $10 monthly copay for an eligible family with an income of less than 100% of the federal poverty level. Copays for families making more than 100% of the federal poverty level would make a copayment based on a sliding fee scale that could not exceed 7% of their monthly income.
Along with a $10 million appropriation, Buckley's bill was also armed Tuesday with several cosponsors from the majority caucus, including Buttrey and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick.
Legislative analysts found the current eligibility level at 150% allows for nearly 2,900 children to take part in the program. The passage of HB 648, according to those analysts, would allow an additional 993 children into the program per year.
No one testified against the bill on Tuesday. Supporters lauded the measure as an economic driver.
“Access child care and housing are two of the biggest headwinds that the state is facing today,” Montana Chamber of Commerce CEO Todd O’Hair said.
Earlier in the day, the House Appropriations Committee voted down a proposed $9 million in funding annually for Best Beginnings, with opposition from GOP lawmakers. The committee did not talk about Buckley's bill.