Hochul at Divide with Lawmakers on Child Care, Once A Top Priority

Child care used to be Hochul’s marquee issue. Now, she’s proposing a modest expansion—but only if Congress doesn’t act.

Sam Mellins   ·   January 12, 2022
Hochul visited a daycare in Syracuse to advocate for affordable child care in July, a month before she became governor. | Courtesy of CNY Central

As the 2022 legislative session begins, child care funding has emerged as an early point of tension between New York’s new governor and the legislature, bringing a fierce national policy debate to Albany.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills to dramatically expand state support for child care, while Governor Kathy Hochul is proposing a much more modest expansion—and only “in the event of federal inaction” on the Build Back Better Act, which contains significant child care subsidies but has stalled in Congress, a spokesperson said.

New York state’s child care system currently serves about 860,000 children, about 100,000 of whom receive state subsidies to help cover the cost. Child care costs more in New York than in all but five other states, running as high as $21,000 a year for an infant or toddler—more than a year’s tuition at New York’s public colleges and universities.

Two bills before the legislature would bring those costs down for families by dramatically expanding state subsidies.

The Early Learning Child Care Act, sponsored by Senator Jessica Ramos (D-Queens) and Assemblymember Sarah Clark (D-Rochester), would make child care free for children under the age of five whose families earn up to four times the federal poverty level, or $106,000 in 2021 for a family of four, and subsidize it for families making up to ten times that level, or $265,000 in 2021.

The Universal Child Care Act, sponsored by Senator Jabari Brisport (D-Brooklyn) and Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D-Queens), goes even further, scrapping means-testing altogether: it would make child care free for all families who participate, and would include after-school programs for school-age children as well.

Both bills would also provide additional funding to child care centers for wage support and operating costs. Brisport and Ramos both estimate that their bills would cost $5 billion a year. (One of those estimates may be inaccurate, since Brisport’s bill has a wider scope.) Ramos’ bill would be funded by a payroll tax increase on large employers; Brisport’s doesn’t include a dedicated funding source, but he says he would seek to offset its costs through an income tax hike on high earners.

Hochul’s proposal is less far-reaching. It would raise the eligibility level for child care subsidies from its current level, 200 percent of the federal poverty line, to 225 percent. In 2021, that would have raised the eligibility level for a family of four from $53,000 to a little under $60,000. Her administration estimates the shift would allow 100,000 additional families to access subsidies, though Brisport’s office and child care advocates argue that projection is inflated.

“That just doesn’t meet the need, nor the urgency, of getting our child care system in order,” Ramos said.

Hochul’s proposal also includes $75 million in wage support for the child care workforce. Around 1,500 of New York’s child care centers closed up shop during the first year of the pandemic, as workers left the profession in droves.

This amount is “not enough to stabilize the workforce,” said Dede Hill, director of policy at the research and advocacy-focused Schuyler Center.

Child care was expected to be a marquee issue for Governor Hochul, given her long history of advocacy on the issue and personal experience as a young mother unable to afford child care.

Brisport and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins at St. Peter’s Child Care Center in Yonkers, November 2021 | Office of Senator Jabari Brisport

Last year, as lieutenant governor, Hochul co-chaired a task force on child care availability, which recommended that the state implement a sliding scale subsidy program that would prevent any family from paying more than 10 percent of its income for child care. In June 2021, she called the shortage of child care providers a “crisis on steroids.”

Most recently, as governor, Hochul strengthened a child care bill passed by the legislature, writing an amendment in December that required that the state’s child care task force be “integral in advising the state on how to implement a universal child care model.”

That background left advocates surprised by the relative modesty of Hochul’s State of the State proposal. “We’re concerned and disappointed because she’s been such a promoter of child care,” Hill said.

Marina Marcou-O’Malley, policy and operations director at the Alliance for Quality Education, said that the proposal was a continuation of Cuomo-era policy. “It feels like it’s the same type of approach. The Cuomo administration did not pay attention to the child care system or the needs of families,” she said.

Marcou-O’Malley is hoping “that the executive budget will be different and will include a much bolder investment,” she said. The executive budget, which Hochul is expected to release by next Tuesday, sets out the governor’s starting position for negotiations with the legislature.

Brisport’s legislative director, James Ostaszewski, said his office is attempting to set up a meeting with the governor’s staff to encourage them to include a more aggressive expansion in the executive budget.

In her remarks opening the Senate’s 2022 session, delivered the same day as Hochul’s State of the State, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester) said that it is “time for us to make universal, affordable child care a reality in our state,” raising proponents’ hopes that the legislature will push for additional child care funding beyond Hochul’s proposal.

Ostaszewski noted that it’s common for legislative leadership to push governors to expand on their initial spending proposals, and said that he expects Stewart-Cousins to do so.

Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic conference, said that the chamber’s leadership doesn’t favor Brisport’s or Ramos’ bill over the other, but reaffirmed Stewart-Cousins’ commitment to achieving universality. “We aren’t signing on to a specific proposal but a combination with the end goal being universal child care,” he said.

He added that Senate Democrats “want action” whether or not the Build Back Better Act becomes law.

Hevesi, the Queens Assemblymember, said that Assembly leadership also supports a dramatic boost to child care funding. “I’ve spoken to leadership, and I have the impression that they are open to the same kind of conversation that Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins is open to,” he said. A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) did not respond to a request for comment.

A Hochul spokesperson expressed willingness to negotiate details with the legislature. “Governor Hochul’s proposal to expand access to the state’s child care program, the details of which will be included in the executive proposed budget released later this month, would be a starting point for discussion with the Legislature on how to meaningfully expand access to child care,” the spokesperson said.

Proponents of expanded child care sought to downplay the differences between Brisport’s and Ramos’ bills. “We support any initiative that drives towards universal [child care],” Hill said. “We think that they align, and can be further aligned into one big universal child care plan.”

Ramos said that amalgamation of similar but distinct bills is “usually what ends up happening with budget items.” She recently signed on as a cosponsor to Brisport’s bill, and is hoping that Brisport will likewise sign on to her bill, she added.

Ostaszewski said that Brisport has not yet decided whether or not to sign on to Ramos’ bill, but that the two bills reflect a “pretty broad consensus within the Senate that we need to go farther” than the governor’s proposal. The two senators’ offices are having “ongoing conversations” and the final version advanced by the Senate might incorporate elements from each of the two bills, Ostaszewski added.

“We all know that we need to be pulling in the same direction rather than fighting amongst ourselves,” he said.

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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