October 24, 2014

Bill to rate child care and raise subsidy moves toward passage

Licensed child care centers would be rated and more families would be eligible for child care subsidies under a bill moving into position for passage in the legislature.

Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff tells colleagues as many as 60,000 young children are at risk, not prepared to enter school.

“We can not any longer turn ourselves away from these children,” Harms says during floor debate on LB 507. “They’re our future. They’re our hope. They will run this country and for every child that drops out that’s one child gone.”

The primary thrust of the bill would create a rating system for licensed child care centers in Nebraska, rating them beyond whether they meet safety and health codes.

Under the bill, child care centers receiving at least $250,000 annually will have to submit to a review. Other providers could submit to the review voluntarily.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, says child care has changed and Nebraskans need better assessments of child care providers.

“It’s no longer good enough to park the kids in front of a TV or let them play with toys,” Campbell states. “There has to be a curriculum. There has to be the development of the teachers. That prepares that child for exactly what Sen. Harms was talking about; to be ready for Kindergarten.”

An amendment adopted earlier incorporates a modification of LB 625 into LB 507.

The modified version of LB 625, sponsored by Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln, would raise the threshold for families to qualify for public child care subsidies. Currently, a family making up to 120% of the federal poverty level qualifies. Under the amendment, that threshold would be raised to 125% the first year and 130% the second year.

The legislature rejected an amendment that would hold the threshold at the 125% level, though the amendment sparked a debate on the proper role of government in addressing social issues.

Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege cautions that the legislature can help only so much.

“In my view, we’re rather heavy on committing and very short on oversight. We’re long on giving out and short on accountability,” Carlson states. “We’re quick to provide and slow to encourage self-help and demand self-help.”

The state at one time provided child care help to families making as much as 185% of the federal poverty level, but tough times forced budget cuts in 2002 and the threshold hasn’t been raised since.

It is estimated that the expansion to 130% of the federal poverty level would cost $8.2 million over the two-year budget cycle, adding approximately 7,300 children to subsidized child care.

Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus tells colleagues they shouldn’t think of the bill solely as a social program.

“I almost look at LB 507 as a business-subsidy bill,” Schumacher says, “because, what it’s doing is enabling that very low-paid workforce to show up for work if they have kids.”

LB 507 has cleared the two rounds of legislative debate in which it can be amended. It next comes before the Unicameral for final consideration.