ST. PAUL — The state has $1.3 billion in extra funds to spend this year. And Minnesota Democrats say that money should be spent to help more Minnesota kids get into child care and early childhood education programs.
Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party lawmakers made the pitch Thursday, Feb. 13, as the state Legislature entered its third day back in session.
The proposal would come with a $500 million price tag, which Democrats hope would be covered by one-time funding from the state budget surplus. And it would fund $190 million in early learning scholarships for about 25,000 children, $190 million in additional funding for child care assistance and $60 million for voluntary pre-kindergarten slots.
The bill would also include additional funding for a home visiting program, grants and loans to help child care providers and more funding for evaluation. And it would retain 4,000 school-based preschool slots and provide funding for assistance that could cover childcare costs for 2,000 additional families.
Minnesota has some of the highest-in-the-nation child care costs, and state leaders have said the hefty price tag and lack of available slots for available child care or early childhood education have put those options out of reach for thousands of families. Those that can afford care pay rates comparable to a monthly mortgage payment or college tuition.
And child care providers and early childhood teachers also face financial challenges as they struggle to make enough to make ends meet.
To help ease the financial burden for families, Democratic lawmakers said one-time-funds should be used to provide additional scholarships and to increase the rate the state pays for child care assistance. While it's not a permanent solution, they said the benefits could be lasting as the children eligible for care benefit from the early learning over the course of their lives.
"The thought is, let's invest this money that is available right now to increase rates and provide care for kids," Rep. Dave Pinto, D-St. Paul, said. "I would certainly hope that in future sessions we would continue to provide that support, but we know we have this funding now, the kids are this age now and families have this need now."
Republicans who control the Minnesota Senate and Gov. Tim Walz have said they'd prefer to see the state's projected $1.3 billion surplus used a different way. And House Speaker Melissa Hortman, D-Brooklyn Park, said she'd have work ahead of her in persuading Senate leaders and the governor to get on board with the plan.
"It's very tempting to just look out into the future and say we need to have this substantial reserve in the event of a downturn, but what we know is there's a bunch of 3-year-old Minnesotans who can benefit right now and we don't know if there's a downturn. We do know that we have healthy reserves. So there's a balance to be struck there," Hortman said.
Walz on Thursday told reporters that he was glad to see Democrats make the commitment to early education and said he would make a decision about whether to support the plan after state budget officials get a clearer picture of how big a surplus lawmakers will have to spend.
"This is an area that Minnesotans agree upon. It’s smart; it’s near and dear to my heart — world-class quality education," Walz said. “I think that’s a great use of Minnesota resources, on our children."
Karen DeVos, owner of Little Learners Child Care Center in Ada, said additional funding for providers would help boost infant care slots in the facility and allow for the opening of another center in Halstad. The Ada center has four infant spots that are booked through September of next year. And while the additional slots would help the community, they're off the table for now as child care assistance program reimbursement rates aren't enough to cover the costs.
"With the rates where they are with child care assistance right now, that is not going to happen," DeVos said. "The community supports it. We have the children available to add in 22 new infant/toddler spots, we have the support of the community behind us, but we don't have the money to be able to do it."