Battle over child care program heats up

Showdown likely coming in state House

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — A battle between Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and legislative Democrats is shaping up as House Democrats attempt to undo cuts made by Rauner to a state child care assistance program.

The Rauner administration in July used rule-making powers to toughen eligibility standards for the program, which helps low-income families pay for childcare.

The administration changed the maximum-income standards from 185 percent of the federal poverty level to 50 percent of the poverty level, or from about $2,450 for a two-person family to about $665.

The House sponsor of a bill to roll back the rule changes, Democrat Jehan Gordon-Booth of Peoria, said the administration’s actions eliminated child care assistance for up to 90 percent of those previously eligible.

State Sen. Toi Hutchinson, D-Olympia Fields, said the administration’s changes would mean a parent who works full-time at minimum wage now makes too much to qualify for the program.

Hutchison’s legislation, Senate Bill 570, aimed at overturning the changes passed the Senate by a 37-to-7 vote in August.

In the House, Democrats in early September came up within a vote of passing the measure before delaying a final to keep the bill alive.

Democrats are expected to make another run at passing the bill, perhaps on Tuesday, and Rauner’s administration is staunchly opposed.

The legislation “permanently cements the eligibility level for the CCAP, regardless of appropriations or funds available,” two top Rauner officials wrote to legislators this week.

“That’s irresponsible to the budgeting process and the type of policy that created our backlog of unpaid bills. No serious legislator who cares about passing truly balanced budgets can honestly vote for this type of policy — it is a green light to create higher deficits,” wrote James Dima and Tim Nuding, the governor’s human services secretary and budget director, respectively.

Were the bill to take effect in January 2016, it would add $220 million in costs for the remainder of this fiscal year and mean an annual cost of $800 million, the governor’s staff says.

The bottom line, according to Dima and Nuding: “A vote for SB 570 is a vote to increase the budget deficit and force a massive tax increase on the people of Illinois.”

Backers of the legislation were impressed by neither the Rauner team’s argument nor its numbers.

What “is the baseline for the annualized costs? The pre-cut levels? The post-cut levels?” Emily Miller of Voices for Illinois Children asked in a letter on behalf of a coalition of child care advocates and posted on the Capitol Fax blog.

“These are questions advocates do not know the answers to, and since we are unwilling to make numbers up, we are unable to refute the governor’s claims as a result,” she said.

“What we do know is that while the legislation would require restoring funding for the operation of the child care program, the cost of not funding the program is far greater than $220 million, or even $800 million,” Miller wrote.

The coalition concludes, “No serious policymaker can honestly say investing in quality childcare for working parents doesn’t save the state money in the short-and long-term.”

The bill would need 71 votes for passage, meaning if no Republicans break ranks to support the measure, House Democrats will need all of their members present and on board if they are to pass the legislation.

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