Assembly Republicans pass child care bills with no Democratic support
Rep. Joy Goeben (R-Hobart) speaks at a press conference Thursday morning about Republicans’ child care bills. (Screenshot from WisEye)
Assembly lawmakers passed a package of six bills on Thursday that Republicans argue will address the growing child care crisis by expanding resources and providing flexibility to child care providers. Child care providers have criticized the bills and none of them received support from Democrats, who said the bills were misguided and wouldn’t solve the problems facing the industry. The passage of the bills comes ahead of a special session Gov. Tony Evers called for next week, asking lawmakers to consider workforce proposals, including an additional $365 million of new funding for Child Care Counts.
The first bill, AB 387, would allow parents or other legal guardians to contribute up to $10,000 a year before taxes to a child care reimbursement account. The bill passed 62-35, along party lines.
“This bill is out there to provide a solution for people that are looking for child care options. Once again, it’s just a tool. Doesn’t fix it all,” Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonie) said. “This is a fairly low-cost fix or low-cost solution which is hugely important. The answer is not always throwing more money at it. Throwing more money at it gets you more inflation.”
Bill author Rep. Joy Goeben (R-Hobart) said the bill was modeled on the dependent day care flex spending account benefit that is available to state employees. She said opening that benefit to all would be a “long-term sustainable solution” that would provide economic relief to parents and guardians.
“We agree that people are frustrated. Parents’ and providers’ costs are high. Provider pay is low. Slots are in short supply,” Goeben said. “This pre-tax deduction for all families needing child care in Wisconsin is a win.”
Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo) said he has heard overwhelmingly from people, especially those of child-bearing age, asking for help with day care, not for tax cuts or rebates. He said the math of the bill doesn’t “add up.”
“Let me tell you why: $10,000, I’ve got to set-aside and I’m making $50,000 a year,” Considine said. “The math on that just doesn’t work out. It doesn’t work out at all and I can’t afford to put that money aside.”
AB 388, which passed 62-35 along party lines, would create a $15 million revolving loan program that child care centers could use to help pay for renovations of their properties. Republicans had included the same proposal in the state budget, but Evers vetoed parts of the provision to make it into a grant program. The bill would reverse Evers’ veto.
Rep. Lisa Subeck said the bill would not solve the problem of retaining employees in the child care industry.
“Even as these bills might help recruit new staff, that revolving door of people leaving the field is still there,” Subeck said. “Folks leave this field, just as I did, because you can’t afford to stay in the child care field and not work two or three or four jobs. This bill does absolutely nothing to address that issue. It puts child care providers and businesses in danger by giving them loans that they can’t afford to take.”
Democrats proposed amendments to the first two bills that would have reestablished Child Care Counts and changed the proposed revolving loan program to a grant program, yet each was rejected by Republicans.
“Child Care Counts is working. If we’ve learned anything from the COVID health emergency, it was how critical child care was to the rest of the workforce. Adults cannot go to work if there is no one to care for their child,” Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire) said during floor debate. “We need to change the business model. We need to do that by investing government dollars in these programs. We have systems that work. Child Care Counts works.”
AB 389, which passed 62-35 along party lines, would create a new category of “large family child care centers” that could serve between four and 12 children.
AB 390 passed 61-36 with Rep. Scott Allen (R-Waukesha) joining Democrats against. The bill would lower the minimum age for an assistant child care teacher or group leader for school-age children to 16. The current minimum age is 18. Some exceptions are made for 17-year-olds who meet certain additional qualifications.
Rep. Amy Binsfeld (R-Sheboygan) compared allowing 16-year-olds to work in child care centers to driving.
“We trust them enough to go to school and learn driving techniques and go out on the road,” Binsfeld said. “AB 390 provides the idea that somebody could take classes in high school and go over to the child care center and interact with our children. They’re not even alone in that center.”
Rep. Alex Joers (D-Madison) said the solution to the child care crisis does not involve lowering the minimum age of child care providers and “telling our youth to watch the kids.”
“What we could do better is pay our early education instructors and professionals a living wage,” Joers said. “AB 390, it attempts to put labor on the backs of our teenagers. Wisconsin should be investing in our children and our kids, not using them for cheap labor.”
The median pay for child care workers in Wisconsin is $12.66 an hour, according to Kids Forward.
Rep. Lee Snodgrass (D-Appleton) said that 16-year-olds are still kids, and that “even the most mature and hardworking and well-behaved 16-year-olds are not equipped to handle increasingly complex challenges of young children.”
Snodgrass added that every child deserves educated, informed and experienced professionals caring for them.
AB 391, which passed 62-36 with Allen joining Democrats against, would increase the number of children to child care workers allowed in a group child care center.
The bill would also allow group child care centers to adjust their ratio of child care workers to children to match the teacher-pupil ratio in the local school district. Goeben said the bill would create an equal playing field between public schools and child care centers.
“We’re supporting and empowering our child care centers, owners, operators and parents,” Goeben said. “The ultimate power and decision making remains with the child care center owner and administrator. They can use a little flexibility in their numbers.”
The final bill, AB 392, passed 63-35, along party lines. It would allow child care providers with a county certification to care for up to six children regardless of whether any are related to the operator. Those providers currently can care for no more than three children who are not related to them.
The bills will go to the Senate for consideration.
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