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May 9, 2024

CT child care trust fund has 23 advisory members — but $0 to work with

GINNY MONK / CTMIRROR.ORG Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford, debates House Bill 5002 on the House floor on Friday, May 3, 2024. The measure aims to expand access to early childhood care and education for Connecticut residents.

A bill that sought $100 million in state money to seed a trust fund supporting child care expansion has cut the state’s contribution to $0, calling instead on private businesses and foundations to supply the fund’s initial cash infusion. 

House Bill 5002 institutes a 23-member advisory commission for the Early Childhood Care and Education Fund and calls on the commission to report regularly on the amount of money the fund has attracted and how it’s being invested. It also calls for the commission to develop a five-year plan for administering the money collected in the fund.

“If the 25 top employers in the state each put a million dollars in this fund, I think it would be wonderful. I would love to see the major nonprofits and foundations contribute to this fund,” Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said during debate on the House floor Friday. “What better use of philanthropic and business dollars than to create a fund that will provide quality early child care?”

The bill — which also establishes a cost-sharing pilot program for child care in Eastern Connecticut and sets aside a portion of the Office of Early Childhood budget for some teacher bonuses — passed both chambers unanimously.

But it’s unclear whether its marquee component will attract any of the private funding it needs to address the state’s floundering child care system. The legislature originally established the fund last year, permitting it to receive donations to support early childhood education, but so far it hasn’t received any contributions. 

This year’s legislation would have directed an initial $50 million in bond funding and up to $50 million more from the state’s projected budget surplus this fiscal year into the fund. Those dollars were stricken from the bill when lawmakers agreed not to reopen the current biennial budget this session. 

Still, Comptroller Sean Scanlon called H.B. 5002 “a win” because it provides more structure and function for the fund than what was laid out when it was established last year. That will be key when lawmakers meet next year to address the next biennial budget, Scanlon said.

“The goal of this is to have a place that either state dollars, federal dollars or philanthropic dollars could be used to combat education inequality in our state,” he said. “With this structure in place, I think it will be easier to make the case why state investment in this is important.”

A Blue Ribbon Panel, convened by Gov. Ned Lamont last March, produced a five-year improvement plan for Connecticut’s early childhood education system late last year. The panel estimated the cost to implement the plan over the next five years at over $2 billion. The first year’s costs — this year, if the plan were implemented as recommended — amounted to roughly $150 million.

The legislature’s “stabilization plan” — which has passed both chambers — doesn’t come close to that figure, adding just over $20 million for child care, pulled from the last remaining federal American Rescue Plan Act funds. 

“We just have to get ready for a more robust conversation next year because we’re in the last hours of session,” said Eva Bermúdez Zimmerman, an advocate with Child Care for Connecticut’s Future. “We know that we’re not going to find magical money to the point of $100-plus million, if we’re being realistic. And now we have to regroup for 2025.”

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, acknowledged before Friday’s House session that the lack of state dollars for the trust fund wasn’t what the proponents of the bill, led by Rep. Kate Farrar, D-West Hartford, had wanted.

“There’s some disappointment in how much funding we could get this year for early childhood, I’ll be the first to say that,” Ritter said, adding that he expects it to be a “bipartisan” priority in the 2025 legislative session.

But Bermúdez Zimmerman was encouraged, she said, by the structure laid out in H.B. 5002 for the Early Care and Education Fund. “It is historic,” she said. “This is the first time in the world of early care and education where we can successfully allocate funding and box it out apart from the general fund.”

“Even though we are not quite hitting the benchmark of money put into the bill and the bonding that we originally wanted, it’s not a failure,” Bermúdez Zimmerman said.

The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, the state’s largest business lobby, applauded the section of H.B. 5002 that seeks to create a pilot cost-sharing program in Eastern Connecticut — one of the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel. Known as “tri-share,” the program would fund new and existing child care programs in the region using one-third public dollars, one-third employer contributions and one-third payments from families. The legislature’s current stabilization budget includes $1.8 million to fund the tri-share pilot.

“It’s just a way to get more funds out there to potentially help employers make child care a little bit more affordable for their employees,” CBIA President Chris DiPentima said. 

DiPentima, who served on the Blue Ribbon Panel, said employers interviewed by the panel liked the tri-share model because they’d be able to see the direct impact of whatever dollars they put toward it. “You’re putting up money, and you know: My money’s going to specific employees, my employees, and it’s going to a specific child care facility, probably the one in my region, my area.”

With the broader statewide trust fund, he said, “You just don’t necessarily know where that money is going … You’re losing a bit of the control, or the say, or the impact of where your business dollars are going.”

Still, House leaders took an optimistic tone about potential private donors to the fund. In remarks to reporters before the session Friday, Farrar implored the state’s businesses and philanthropies: “Who wants to be up to the plate?”

Cheeseman added: “You could be first!”

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