Proposal advances to expand Nebraska’s child care workforce and cut costs

‘We think it’s going to be enough to move the needle on this,’ said State Sen. John Fredrickson, who introduced the Kentucky-modeled legislation

By: - February 21, 2024 1:58 pm

(Getty Images)

LINCOLN — A Kentucky-based initiative that brought in more child care workers could soon come to Nebraska after a legislative proposal cleared first-round debate Wednesday.

State Sen. John Fredrickson testifies regarding mental and behavioral health challenges
State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha. Sept. 20, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Legislative Bill 856, introduced by State Sen. John Fredrickson of Omaha, would make all child care workers eligible for their own child care aid, regardless of income. To qualify, a worker would need to work at least 20 hours per week in direct child care at a licensed center or Early Head Start program or as a licensed, self-employed child care provider.

If passed, the program would start three months after the Legislature adjourns this year and end Oct. 1, 2026, with the option to extend.

Fredrickson said Wednesday the bill would be “simple and measurable” and would tackle workforce and child care needs. He estimated the program could add at least 2,000 new parent providers into the child care workforce, supporting more than 16,000 children of Nebraska workers. 

“It’s time to address this problem in a direct way,” Fredrickson said during floor debate. “It’s time for, as the State Chamber calls, a ‘game changer.’”

‘Move the needle’

Two amendments, each adopted 38-0, capped LB 856 at a $10 million annual cost, which Fredrickson said would be a “fiscally responsible” but “prudent investment.” First Five Nebraska, which advocates for early child care and learning, estimates the cost of doing nothing is $489 million annually from missed work opportunities, due to lack of child care.

“We think it’s going to be enough to move the needle on this,” Fredrickson said.

Providers would also need to make “reasonable accommodations” so they are not the primary caregiver of their own child, which is not allowed under federal law. If this is not possible, Nebraska centers could still receive such subsidies.

State Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte. May 19, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner).

State Sen. Mike Jacobson of North Platte said day cares are businesses where the state can begin to address significant labor shortages in other industries, which are almost all in need of workers.

“Once we get people back to work — and that might include going through a recession in the meantime — we’re going to be in a much better position a couple of years from now than we are right now,” Jacobson said.

State Sen. Danielle Conrad of Lincoln said lawmakers must recognize the need and “stop dancing around the edges. State Sen. George Dungan said Fredrickson “really hit the nail on the head” by modeling LB 856 after another state’s successful program.

“There is no silver bullet,” Dungan said. “But this is certainly one of the building blocks of the foundation of how we can create a better Nebraska for working Nebraskans.”

First Five Nebraska, Nebraska Cattlemen, Voices for Children in Nebraska, the Platte Institute and Nebraska Chamber of Commerce are among organizations in favor of LB 856.

A ‘new entitlement’

State Sen. Brian Hardin of Gering, who co-owns a child care facility in Colorado, voted for the narrowing amendments to LB 856 but against the underlying bill. He expressed hesitancy with what happens if or when the program ends.

“What we are hatching here is a new entitlement,” he said.

State Sen. Steve Erdman of Bayard also opposed the bill, noting that in his nearly eight years in the Legislature, “temporary” programs don’t end but become permanent.

Hardin added that there is a fine line between providers’ businesses and their personal lives. They serve as “surrogates” for families who must work to support their families, and he predicted that federal involvement could “angle” or “manipulate” even independent centers.

State Sen. Brian Hardin of Gering. March 3, 2023. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service)

“The cautionary tale is that when you allow the government in and they’re going to pay that cost for you, that sounds welcoming. There’s lots of chocolatey goodness with that,” Hardin said. “The unfortunate thing is that it comes not with strings but with tentacles attached.”

State Sen. Kathleen Kauth of Omaha similarly expressed concern with state involvement. She said it could interfere with a business’s possible incentive to attract employees.

State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, chair of the Revenue Committee, said the state is already doing a lot for child care workers, such as tax credits. She voted to advance the bill but said she wants to understand how each program fits together.

“I would like to see, between now and Select (second-round debate), is all these programs laid on top of each other to see exactly what we’re doing,” Linehan said.

Fredrickson said he has been in contact with Gov. Jim Pillen’s office on the bill and would work with colleagues to ensure LB 856 “makes sense for Nebraska and is robust.”

The bill advanced 35-9 to second-round debate.

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Zach Wendling
Zach Wendling

Zach rejoins the Nebraska Examiner after studying abroad in Antigua, Guatemala, following a yearlong Examiner internship. His coverage focus areas have included politics and government, health and well-being and higher education.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.