Advocates say the proposed child care budget falls short. (Getty Images)
Legislators are considering a proposal that would allocate about $1.3 billion to Oregon’s new Department of Early Learning and Care to tackle child care needs across the state, but advocates say an additional $70 million is needed.
House Bill 5013 outlines the state’s plans for agency operations and statewide programs in the next two years. The bill passed the Joint Ways and Means committee Wednesday on a 20-3 vote.
The $1.3 billion proposal represents a 0.6% increase from what experts predict is needed to maintain current services.
Courtney Veronneau, senior political director at Family Forward Oregon, said the bill should allow the department to maintain its current caseload of more than 9,000 families on the state’s Employment Related Day Care, which provides subsidized child care for working families, through 2023.
However, without additional resources, she said, caseloads will need to be cut by at least 1,000 families in 2024.
Additionally, Gov. Tina Kotek’s recommended budget called for $103.8 million in new department investments to increase compensation for providers. Child care workers earn a median hourly wage of $15.28, according to the Oregon Employment Department, with comparably low wages contributing to a shortage of providers that makes it difficult for parents to find and afford care.
Veronneau said these pay increases are almost entirely unfunded in House Bill 5013. The bill would require the department to take a portion of funds away from prenatal and day care services and decrease the number of available services in order to increase compensation, she said.
Advocates including Veronneau are requesting an investment of at least $70 million to better match Kotek’s proposal.
They argue this would provide enough funding to improve programs, serve additional families and provide fairer compensation for the business owners and educators — predominantly women and people of color — who perform this work.
“This (funding proposal) needs to be the floor,” Veronneau said. “It’s definitely not the ceiling.”
Lawmakers are under pressure to pass an initial budget by June 25. House Concurrent Resolution 23, passed this session, allows state agencies to still receive funding this summer if they fail.
But lawmakers would still need to pass a budget by Sept. 15, and the Department of Early Learning and Care, newly established in 2021, is in a unique bind to get funding secured so it can officially launch on July 1.
They can’t begin a lot of their work without a state budget passed, or at least expected to pass.
Ongoing Senate Republican walkouts are preventing the Legislature from passing bills, including the budget. Senate Republicans have said they will be back on June 25, the final day of the session, to “pass bipartisan bills and a bipartisan budget.” But Senate President Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, said he won’t let Republicans control the agenda, making it likely the Legislature won’t pass a budget until a special session this summer.
That leaves child care advocates, and others, in a state of limbo.
“The sooner we can begin to move the budget through the process,” Veronneau said, “the sooner these operational milestones can be completed and the agency can launch smoothly.”
Child care needs in Oregon
Nearly every county in Oregon qualifies as a child care desert — an area with at least three children for every child care slot available. Severe deserts are defined as having at most one slot for every 10 children.
This places burdens on working families to find child care and adds strain on existing providers. It also means a lot of children get left behind.
In 2019, Child Care Aware of America, a national child care nonprofit based in the Pacific Northwest, reported that 167,914 children under 6 in Oregon were eligible to receive child care subsidies. These were the most up-to-date figures advocates could provide, but it’s likely the need is much greater since COVID.
In order to qualify, all parents of an eligible child must work and their income can’t be more than 200% above the federal poverty line. But even with tens of thousands of young children qualifying for this support, only a fraction receive it.
Advocates with the statewide collective Child Care for Oregon told the Capital Chronicle that only about 11% of families who are eligible actually receive these subsidies.
That means it’s likely about 150,000 eligible children are not receiving subsidies that could allow them to be in child care.
Still, Oregon has made major progress in recent years.
A report from Oregon State University found that available child care slots for young children in Oregon grew by almost 5% from March 2020 to December 2022, thanks in part to increased public funding.
Although all Oregon counties except Gilliam County remain child care deserts for infants and toddlers, researchers found the number of publicly funded slots for this age group increased by 49%.
Leaders in the child care industry are excited by this progress but worry the proposed budget isn’t enough to keep that momentum going.
Specific asks from advocates
Dana Hepper, director of policy and advocacy at the Children’s Institute, said advocates are looking for four key things.
First, they want more money allocated to child care subsidies.
Oregon legislators dedicated $20 million in 2022 for providers to grow capacity. Now they need to provide subsidies that allow families to take advantage of these new slots.
At a minimum, Hepper said, the state should secure the $40 million in Kotek’s proposed budget.
“In recent years, Oregon made big waves and moved ahead (of other states),” she told the Capital Chronicle. “Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas.”
The second request is for $10 million for the Early Child Equity Fund. Advocates want $2.5 million for wage increases and $7.5 million for expanded services. The proposed budget only includes $1.7 million for wage increases.
Hepper said this money would be used, in part, for expanding culturally-specific programs, which showed promising results in Oregon’s first year of implementation.
Advocates also want $14.4 million to expand Healthy Families Oregon, a free, voluntary, home-visiting program that offers support and education to families who are expecting or parenting newborns.
Advocates requested $7.5 million for wages and cost increases and $6.9 million to reopen the Lincoln County branch, pay for state staff and establish a statewide database.
House Bill 5013 currently only allocates $1.2 million to reopen Lincoln County and $800,000 to purchase the database.
Finally, advocates are calling for an additional $2 million at least to expand relief nurseries — public-private partnerships that typically serve families dealing with severe trauma and provide needed services such as abuse-prevention programs. The Legislature has been investing in these nurseries since the 1990s.
Advocates said local funding already exists to establish more relief nurseries, but the state needs to match that funding in order to have to get them up and running. While the minimum community match is 25% of the state allocation, all nurseries have to fundraise funding to keep operations going
Relief nurseries require a minimum community contribution of 25% of the state’s investment, and the nurseries raise more funds to cover operating costs, Veronneau explainedsaid.
“So, in essence, the state does have a continuing agreement to provide funding to relief nurseries every biennium, though the amount can differ every budget cycle,” she said.
The proposed budget provides a 7% increase, totaling $1.6 million, but Veronneau said this is only enough to ensure the nurseries can increase wages. They said need another $2 million is needed to address rising costs and prevent a reduction in services.
These budget discussions are happening just after the release of the latest state revenue forecast, which showed lawmakers have about $2 billion more to spend than anticipated. Because the state’s population isn’t expected to grow substantially in the near future, advocates argue the state needs to invest more in child care now so more people can go to work and keep the state’s economy strong.
“It is disappointing — especially with the strong revenue forecast — to see that increased
investments have not been prioritized for an industry that, until recently, has a long history of
being underfunded and neglected,” advocates from the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Children’s Institute and Family Forward Oregon wrote in a joint statement released May 25. “The lack of sufficient investments in child care and early learning is a setback we cannot and will not accept.”
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