As Minnesota’s legislative session kicked off Tuesday, lawmakers were busy at the Capitol in St. Paul outlining their agendas for the upcoming months.
For Republicans in control of the state Senate, one issue placed front and center was Minnesota’s lack of affordable child care, which has been a headache for not only parents but businesses desperate for workers amid a tight labor market.
In a morning press conference, state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Mary’s Point, revealed a slate of proposals aimed at helping new child care businesses — or those interested in starting one — navigate the state’s complex rules governing the service.
Child care became a flash point in Housley’s bid for U.S. Senate last year against DFLer Tina Smith, in which Housley largely blamed what she called burdensome and unnecessary state regulations for driving newcomers away from the career.
Smith cruised to victory in the race, but Republicans have made a point to show they’re committed to the issue. Housley has taken up the mantle as chairwoman of the new Committee on Family Care and Aging, which is aimed at providing extra emphasis on issues like child care and elder abuse. State Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, also held several listening sessions on the topic around the state last year in an effort to learn more about child care problems.
“We care about making things a little bit easier for Minnesota families,” Housley said at the press conference, flanked by a large pack of GOP senators.
For the most part, DFLers have offered vastly different solutions to the problem, including boosts to subsidies or plans for expansion of public pre-kindergarten offerings. That split appears just as wide now, although leaders in the DFL-majority House have yet to unveil their initial legislation on the topic.
Whatever policy lawmakers land on to alleviate child care woes, solving the problem will be an uphill climb.
Minnesota was ranked the fifth least affordable state in the country for infant care in a 2017 report. And while it’s not impossible to find child care options — if expensive — in the Twin Cities metro area, the service has become scarcer in rural Minnesota, where parents rely heavily on smaller, more dispersed in-home businesses.
A report by the state Department of Human Services says Minnesota had 8,654 in-home care programs and another 1,725 child care centers in the summer of 2017. Together, those businesses have the capacity to serve more than 228,000 children. Yet between 2013 and 2017, the state had a net loss of about 2,000 in-home child care businesses and roughly 3,100 overall child care spots.
State officials, legislative task forces and outside researchers have attributed the decline of in-home child care providers to a mix of factors, including a wave of retiring baby boomers, tough regulations, high startup costs and low pay for workers.
Five broad proposals
At the Capitol on Tuesday, Housley outlined five broad proposals, the details of which are expected to be filled in later.
Three measures would be aimed at helping child care providers comply with regulations. They would direct DHS to create a more uniform application system across the state; write a plain-language handbook for starting a child care business; and build an anonymous call-in line for providers to ask questions or report concerns with regulations.
Housley said child care providers have told lawmakers they are hesitant to inquire about rules because they fear they will be inspected as a result. (In response to the bills, newly appointed DHS Commissioner Tony Lourey said in a written statement that his agency looks forward “to working with legislators on proposals to support [child care] providers and enhance our efforts to improve access, particularly in Greater Minnesota.”)
Another pair of GOP measures seeks to cut costs for businesses and families. Housley said she’d like to expand a grant program, run through the Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), that helps child care providers start businesses or expand existing ones. DEED awarded $519,000 in grant funds last year, and the agency reported about $196,000 of that has been spent — along with $214,000 in local matching funds — to create 1,082 new child care slots.
Housley also proposed opening up a child care tax credit to higher earners. In an interview, the Republican said she didn’t know yet how high she would like the income threshold to rise, or how much extra money should be pumped into the DEED grant program.
Notably, Republican senators did not propose any cuts to current regulations on Tuesday. Housley said those may still be forthcoming, and she expects to work with child care providers to “see which overburdensome regulations we can do something with besides just navigating them.”
DFL differs, but open to compromise
Housley said she had yet to talk with House leaders about the Republican child care proposals to gauge interest. But she expressed hope the parties could find common ground despite their differences in approach.
In an interview, House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, didn’t take a direct stance on any of Housley’s proposals and was tight-lipped about his party’s own proposals soon to be disclosed.
Universal pre-K “certainly will be on the table,” he said while mentioning other child care legislation DFLers have supported in the past, including expanding a program that helps low-income families pay for child care.
But he nodded to the possibility of working with Republicans on bills that can pass both chambers. The GOP has vigorously opposed universal preschool programs, worried it will take children and money away from an already struggling private system. Winkler also voiced concern about any significant deregulation that could weaken health and safety protections for children. The Legislature did pass some measures to ease regulations last year.
“I think that as a general matter, the DFL caucus is open to almost any approach that will serve kids better,” Winkler said. “I think it’s encouraging the Senate shares a desire to find some way to move forward on the issue.”