Montana to Spend $ 30 Million More on Child Care | 406 Politics

Recognizing a strong demand for help, a state commission recommended this week that more federal money be allocated to stabilize child care options in the state.

But at the meeting earlier this week, a Belgrade childcare provider told the commission that the process of seeking help was far too complicated and that the federal money might not be enough for it. keep its doors open.

State lawmakers also expressed frustration that the money was not specifically intended for areas of the state identified as child care “deserts” and wondered if there was. enough measures in place to ensure that aid is channeled to families in need.

The recommendation of an additional $ 30 million was passed by 6 to 4, with four Republican lawmakers on the committee voting against the proposal and two Democratic lawmakers and one Republican, as well as three members of the administration of Republican Governor Greg Gianforte, supporting her. The plan is sent to Gianforte for final approval.

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The American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Biden early last year, has allocated more than $ 68 million for child care stabilization grants. During the 2021 state legislature, lawmakers created committees that would recommend how to spend the money.

Last year, the commission that oversees health and social service spending approved the allocation of just over half of the $ 68 million allocated to direct grants to child care providers in the country. Montana, with a small portion for administrative costs.

In mid-December, citing the 440 requests it had received and the amount of assistance sought, the state health department told the commission it would need the government’s $ 68 million. federal to be able to meet the demand of 80% of the eligible suppliers in the state.

A report prepared by the state Ministry of Labor and Industry IAs of August, 60% of counties in Montana were child care deserts. This means that the amount of care available meets less than a third of the potential demand. There were six of the state’s 56 counties without a single licensed supplier, according to the report.

In a precedent note to the committee from last summerThe Department of Health said at the height of the pandemic 171 closed child care programs in the state.

In Thursday’s meeting, Adam Meier, director of the State Department of Public Health and Human Services, told commissioners his department received 385 full stabilization grant applications between October 7 and December 7. 16. This represents 43% of all eligible businesses, Meier said.

Jamie Palagi, administrator of the State Department of Health’s Childhood and Family Support Division, said the agency had looked at the costs of running a provider, as well as the additional expenses for mitigate COVID-19. He took that number, subtracted any previous COVID-19 help a vendor received, and then said he would allocate vendors about 45% of that amount. The money should start coming out in installments starting this month.

“Once we gathered all of this information, based on the applications received, it became clear, even for current operating costs, that their operating costs were higher than what (federal) money would allow. Palagi told the committee.

The department is opening a new application period this month and will decide whether another is needed in April to capture all eligible people who wish to apply, Palagi said.

Belgrade provider Elizabeth Schults, who owns and operates Learn n Play Child Care, told the commission that she spent a month on her request and had to call the hotline at least five times for help. aid. She said the amount of funding was initially advertised as being much larger than it appears for places like her operation.

“What we were told with so much excitement and enthusiasm only led to disappointment and a complete loss of confidence in the (health department),” Schults said.

Meier acknowledged that the costs were much higher than expected and that the department was using older data to project demand, but said the amount of federal money available was still unknown in the state.

Schults also asked why any previous COVID-19 aid would be deducted from what it is entitled to when a supplier that started operating more recently, did not have to go through the last two years of the pandemic and therefore had not received the same amount of aid, would not face the same deductions.

“Now the money that I received two years ago, the money that kept me in business for 2020, is being deducted from the money that I will receive in 2022 and no one will explain why” , Schults said. “… Suppliers are still facing COVID shutdowns and quarantines. My own business is about to be shut down for good. The money I will receive from this grant will not keep me in business if I face more than one shutdown in 2022 and have been in business for 20 years.

State Representative Mary Caferro, a Democrat from Helena, said that without finding ways to support workers who remained with child care centers during the pandemic or to get people to work in health centers, the help would not have the desired effect.

“You can invest in infrastructure as much as possible, but if you don’t have the workers to look after the children, it won’t solve the problems of ensuring that there are quality, affordable and safe places for them. children while their parents are working, ”Caferro said.

While Palagi said claimants must certify or promise that help will flow to families, they weren’t required to say how it would be done during the application process.

It concerned State Representative Terry Moore, a Republican from Billings, who said he wanted more assurance that the money would go to families who are struggling to pay for child care. Moore also asked if enough help was going to places in the state with few childcare options.

“I’m just troubled that there is virtually no priority on how these funds are dispersed,” Moore said. “It’s just, for all intents and purposes, based on an allocation of expenses and not frankly on where the highest needs are for the best results in Montana. And that gives me a good break.

Republican Sen. Carl Glimm, of Kila, has raised concerns that federal aid will artificially keep prices low, “which then allows someone who works to have their children (in) custody. of children (while) working a job that doesn’t really pay for it. “

Glimm said that when all the federal money is spent, the “house of cards kind of crumbles”.

Palagi said that in addition to handing out federal aid, there are start-up programs aimed at helping child care providers form business models that will make them more sustainable. Even before the pandemic, a report found there was only licensed capacity for around 40% of the state’s children who might need care.

Meier added that vendors face challenges specific to the pandemic that drive additional costs, such as purchasing personal protective equipment and testing supplies.

Kristin Morss, CFO of Child Care Resources, helps Tom Adams with an air purifier for his wife’s daycare, Annie’s Orphans, last year in Missoula. Child Care Resources, which works to support providers, has invested more than $ 100,000 to purchase purifiers for daycares.

TOM BAUER / Missoulian

Rep. Frank Garner, a Republican from Kalispell who chairs the commission, asked how the commission and the department might follow up if federal money improves the state of child care in the state.

Meier said he plans to monitor capacity and see if there are more child care spaces or open facilities in child care deserts.

Meier and Gardner both said they heard employers say the lack of child care facilities kept people from working.

“In the absence of some of these stabilization funds, and even (with them), we’ve seen some vendors go out of business, and that’s certainly not going to support our workforce (or) the expansion of the workforce, ”Meier said. “We hear time and time again from employers and some of our health care providers (that they) were trying to hire people and that they are having a hard time because they cannot find child care. ‘adequate children. “

Garner also said he was concerned about the issues raised by Moore and Glimm but said the lack of available child care facilities was preventing some people from entering the workforce and because of this he backed the money. additional.

“I think it’s so critical, such a critical need right now, that I don’t want to delay the ability for us to send that money into the field to provide stability to these providers and these families who have it. need to be able to get out and be productive, ”Garner said. “I’m worried about the cliff at the end. “

Money is not the only federal help that has come to the state for child care. Under the previous administration, which dispersed the money from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) law, $ 10.1 million went to a mix comprising 888 providers and 3,500 families, as well as 15 new programs. in the short term who took care of 549 children. . These providers have also received assistance from the Coronavirus Relief Fund, which has given the state $ 57 million. This pot of money also provided 4,000 families with scholarships of $ 2,000 and stimulated 327 programs for school-aged children.

All the CARES money and the Coronavirus Relief Fund have been spent.

As part of the additional appropriations for coronavirus response and relief, which totals more than $ 28.3 million in funding and was awarded in December 2020, in mid-December of last year, around 37% had been spent. The state has until September 2023 to use the funds, which have so far helped an average of 617 licensed providers each month, helped 287 families pay for care, and provided 2,080 families with grants for summer programs. for school-age children.

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