Protesters seeking increased state funding for child care mingle outside the Assembly chamber after Republicans gaveled in and out of a special session to address the issue on Sept. 20. (Henry Redman | Wisconsin Examiner)
The special session that Gov. Tony Evers called six weeks ago to add $1 billion to Wisconsin’s 2023-25 budget for child care, paid family leave, higher education and workforce training came and went Wednesday as Republican leaders in the Legislature opened it and ended it in seconds.
Two hours later, Democrats announced their own bills to establish the paid leave program and to continue Child Care Counts, the support program that began during the COVID-19 pandemic to cover better wages for child care workers while holding down the fees that parents pay for care.
Evers’ executive order for the special session set a noon start time Wednesday. As the hour drew near a half-dozen Democratic senators gathered in the Senate chamber. At the appointed time Senate President Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) gaveled the special session open, then gaveled it closed 17 seconds later, making the routine and perfunctory procedural announcement “without objection.”
The Democrats shouted “object! object!” and at least one demanded a roll call vote. Their cries were ignored.
The scene was similar in the Assembly, where Rep. Mike Bare (D-Verona) was one of about a dozen Democratic representatives on hand to shout objections as Rep. Kevin Peterson (R-Waupaca), the Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore, gaveled in and out.
Their refusal to take up the issue, Bare said in an interview later, indicated to him that “the Republicans are not serious about a bedrock of our economy.”
Wednesday’s outcome was no surprise. The Republican leaders in the Legislature have never done more than gavel in and gavel out on repeated special sessions that Evers has called to consider legislation on subjects ranging from gun violence to abortion rights.
The day that Evers issued his latest special session order and pointed to the state’s projected $4 billion surplus as the funding source. Republican leaders made clear their disdain for the governor’s priorities. Three weeks later they advanced their own plan for $2.9 billion in tax cuts and declared they had no intention of taking up Evers’ agenda.
Evers: ‘I’m not surprised’
As the Republican lawmakers gaveled in and out, Evers was five miles from the Capitol, touring the Mariposa Learning Center in Fitchburg. The child care center is attended by children from infancy to school age, has a Spanish-language immersion program and is a partner with the Oregon School District for 4-year-old Kindergarten programming.
Speaking with reporters just outside the Mariposa building after the tour, Evers was asked his reaction to the events in the Capitol moments earlier as well as what he would do next.
“We’re going to look at and find different ways to assist” child care providers, Evers said. “I’m not surprised, obviously,” he added. “This group of Republicans really have not been able to wrap their arms around all sorts of things, and child care is one of them.”
Evers reiterated the argument that he and child care providers and advocates have been making for months, that stabilizing the child care industry was essential to enable more people to join the workforce at a time when a wide range of employers have been clamoring to fill more openings.
“If they cared about workforce, I would say they would have done exactly what I asked them to do, because there are going to be child care organizations across the state that are going to go belly up, or are going to have to reduce hours,” Evers said. “And for every child that loses child care, that’s one person that’s going to be out of the workforce, because somebody’s got to take care of that child.”
Evers said his administration would “do whatever we can to make sure that places like this and others across the state [survive], but we’ve already lost several.”
Another push for paid leave and child care
Child care funding was just one part of the agenda that Evers had put forward for Wednesday’s special session, although it got the highest profile in the weeks leading up to Wednesday.
The governor’s plan called for extending the Child Care Counts stabilization program for providers that began during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a related program to help employers cover child care costs for their workers.
Combined, the two programs would have received $365 million under the governor’s proposal. Both items were in his proposed 2023-25 budget but were removed by the Republican majority in the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee.
At 2:30 p.m., Democratic senators and representatives crowded into the Assembly parlor to announce that they would introduce stand-alone legislation to extend Child Care Counts.
“My Republican colleagues will now have to make the conscious choice each day whether they are going to join us and support these families and providers or whether they are going to continue to ignore this crisis across our state,” said Rep. Alex Joers (D-Madison).
“We have heard from dozens of centers all around the state that they are having to close their doors because they cannot financially operate,” said Sen. Kelda Roys (D-Madison). She suggested that more centers have probably closed without lawmakers’ knowledge.
With the state’s $4 billion surplus, “this is not because we don’t have the money,” Roys said. “It’s not because we don’t have a need.” Citing the state’s continuing workforce shortage, she added, “We cannot solve our workforce shortage by taking more workers out of the workforce, which is what happens when child care centers close.”
The legislative Democrats also announced a new bill to institute paid family leave in Wisconsin, a provision that Joint Finance Committee Republicans struck from Evers’ budget, then went on to reject attempts by the committee’s Democratic members to reinstate it.
Evers had included the same proposal in the agenda for Wednesday’s aborted special session: a paid family leave program funded by employee payroll deductions and matching employer contributions, with a $243 million state appropriation to allow it to be implemented immediately.
Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) cited a Marquette Law School poll in 2022 that found 73% of Wisconsin voters surveyed favored paid family leave.
“So what does that mean?” Johnson said. “That means that this is not a Republican or Democratic issue. This is a quality-of-life issue. This is a worker shortage issue. This is something that our state requires.”
Locked out of the gallery
Even as the outcome of Wednesday’s session had long been telegraphed, a group of two dozen or so child care providers made their way to Madison hoping to advocate for the Child Care Counts funding.
They had hoped to watch the Senate and Assembly actions and were directed to the spectator galleries, said Corrine Hendrickson, a provider and cofounder of a child care advocacy organization who organized the providers to visit the Capitol. But the galleries were locked, she said, making it impossible for the group to witness lawmakers.
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Theresa Fredericks operates an early learning program in Ashland with 33 children and traveled five hours to see in person what the lawmakers would do.
Child Care Counts accounted for 27% of her center’s income, she said, and made it possible for her to raise wages and start an employer match for employees’ retirement savings accounts.
Fredericks said she’s had to raise tuition by 9% to 20% depending a child’s age and expects to have to do that again by 10% to 15% when the last of the Child Care Counts money runs out in January.
“In a rural community, there’s not a lot of people standing up for us, if any,” Fredericks said of her decision to take the day to visit the Capitol. “So I just felt like this is really important to advocate for our program, for my staff, the families, children.”
The Legislature’s lack of action Wednesday was an act of “blatant disrespect,” Renae Henning, a child care administrator from Beaver Dam, told the Wisconsin Examiner. As early child educators, “We cultivate the future of Wisconsin,” Henning added. “Yet we have poverty wages and the disrespect of our Legislature.”
The lawmakers’ rejection was “a slap in the face, really,” said Angela Norvald of Hudson. “They’re not listening.”
Norvald said she sees workers in the community commuting across the Mississippi River to work in Minnesota, where she said pay is better and child care resources are more robust. “I’m worried about the future of Wisconsin.”
Henry Redman contributed to this report.
Also on Evers’ special session agenda
While child care and paid family leave got the most attention Wednesday as Republican lawmakers skipped the special session called by Gov. Tony Evers, his agenda also included other measures that had been deleted from his original 2023-25 budget proposal.
The other items were:
- Increasing higher education funding by more than $300 million, including a $197.3 million appropriation for a new University of Wisconsin engineering building, $66 million for the UW System and $40 million for the Wisconsin Technical College System. An additional $17 million was earmarked to expand grant programs that benefited UW, technical colleges, the state’s private nonprofit colleges and tribal colleges.
- A $100 million appropriation to continue grants for a series of workforce-related projects around the state, $60 million of which was designated for health care workforce programs. The proposal was built on an earlier series of workforce grants that the administration funded with pandemic relief money.
- Another $16 million in funding for programs to support additional teacher training to address teacher shortages.
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