HELENA — In the wake of hundreds of Montana child-care providers applying for federal COVID-19 relief funds, the Gianforte administration is making all $60 million available — but has yet to distribute any money, more than 10 months after Congress approved it.
The administration told MTN News it will send the first payments for child-care stabilization grants “in the coming weeks,” and that it’s budgeted funding for 926 providers.
The money from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), approved by congressional Democrats last March, is meant to bolster child care, to help people return to work during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Montana also has an additional $42 million from ARPA to aid child care, but the Gianforte administration said it’s still working on its plan to spend that pot of money.
The administration unveiled its first round of child-care grants last October and earlier this month said it would double the available money, from $31 million to $60 million, because of widespread demand.
But some child-care providers say they’re not happy with how the state has handled the process, and that the grant information and expected amounts have repeatedly shifted.
“What was told to us with so much excitement and enthusiasm has led to nothing but disappointment and a complete loss of trust in the (Department of Public Health and Human Services),” said Elizabeth Shults, a child-care provider from Belgrade, in comments this month to a legislative commission.
Shults, who owns Learn and Play Child Care, said providers were told initially last fall they’d be getting payments close to their annual operating expenses.
But the state later changed that amount in December, saying that providers would get only 45% of their annual expenses – and, if they received earlier COVID-19 aid, that amount would be deducted, she said.
“Money I received two years ago that kept me in business for 2020 is being deducted from money I will get for 2022, and no one will explain why,” Shults said.
Adam Meier, director of DPHHS, said the state decided on the deductions and the 45 percent figure to make sure enough money was available for all eligible child-care providers.
State health officials told MTN news they expect the $60 million will support 926 child-care providers across the state, with a stabilization grant approximately 45% of their annual budgets.
However, they also said they’d received only 385 complete applications by mid-December — although a second application period remains open until Jan. 31.
Valerie Reighard, director of Just Like Home Day Care in Helena, told MTN News this week she thought the first grant payment would arrive by Jan. 1, but has yet to see it.
Reighard said she’d likely use at least some of the money to assist her staff, possibly by paying more of their health-insurance costs or helping fund their retirement accounts.
Child-care providers across the state say hiring and retaining staff is their biggest concern — and a primary reason why Montana faces an on-going shortage in affordable child care.
The legislative Health Advisory Commission, which advises the Gianforte administration on ARPA spending, recommended last fall spending $31 million on the child-care stabilization grants — half the available money.
But at a Jan. 6 meeting of the commission, the Gianforte administration asked the panel to endorse spending another $30 million, because of the high demand from child-care providers.
The panel approved the endorsement on a 6-4 vote, with four of the five GOP legislators on the panel voting against it.
One of them, state Rep. Terry Moore of Billings, said he thought the funds would and should be targeted more at specific areas where child care is most needed, to help the workforce.
“I just am troubled that there are virtually no priorities on how these funds are disbursed, and it’s just simply, for all practical purposes, based on an allocation of expenses and not frankly on where is the highest, best needs or the best outcomes in Montana,” he said.
But the chair of the commission, Republican state Rep. Frank Garner of Kalispell, voted to endorse the additional money. He said while he had concerns about expectations for the money, he felt the need for available child care couldn’t be ignored.
“Right now, I am hearing from people in my district, who are challenged by housing and child care, when it comes to their ability to take part in the workforce,” Garner said. “It’s such a critical need right now, that I don’t want to delay the ability for us to get that money out in the field.”
Garner joined two commission Democrats and three Gianforte administration officials, including Meier, in voting to endorse the additional money.
Some Republicans on the panel also worried that the one-time infusion of funds would create a budget “cliff” that would artificially lower child-care costs just for one year.
But Reighard, the day-care center director, said she trusts providers to make good business choices and avoid using the money in a way that could be adjusted downward in the future, when it runs out.