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Child care spending bill passes Montana Legislature

A photo from above shows lawmakers seated in the Montana Legislature House chamber.
Nick Mott
Montana Public Radio
Lawmakers seated in the Montana Legislature's House chamber.

A bipartisan policy aiming to make child care more accessible for middle-to-low income Montana families has passed the state Legislature. It’s the most significant spending on child care advancing this session.

House Bill 648 would permanently expand eligibility for a child care scholarship program, known as the Best Beginnings program.

Previous versions of the bill died last session, and earlier this session. But Rep. Alice Buckley, a Democrat from Bozeman, lobbied colleagues on both sides of the aisle hard.

“It feels really important to think about framing it not only as a bipartisan issue, but framing it as an issue that affects our communities, our workforce, our businesses and our families,” Buckley said.

The bill squeaked by in an initial vote in the House 51-49, but picked up 14 votes the next day.

The policy would increase the eligibility threshold for the program from an annual income of 100% of the federal poverty level to 185%. For a family of four, that’s about $55,000 a year. The bill would also make payments to child care providers more consistent and copays for the scholarship commensurate with a family’s income.

Some Republicans voted against the bill, saying child care is best left to parents at home and that the program costs too much. It’s projected to cost the state about $7 million annually.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Great Falls, carried the bill on the floor and said he and his wife have dealt with the high cost of child care.

“There is no way that child care is affordable in this state and there’s no way we’re going to be able to keep people in the workforce as it is,” Fitzpatrick said. “So that’s why I’m supporting this bill.”

Quality child care is hard to find and afford for the majority of families in Montana. The average cost of infant care is comparable to college tuition.

The bill is now headed to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s desk. Gianforte has declined to say whether he’ll sign the bill. His proposal to help families with child care through a child tax credit has failed to advance.

Shaylee covers state government and politics for Montana Public Radio. Please share tips, questions and concerns at 406-539-1677 or  
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