CHEYENNE — Only one bill directly addressing child care in Wyoming made it all the way through the House of Representatives, but some lawmakers hope it is not the end of the conversation.
Rep. Mike Yin, D-Jackson, is among the state lawmakers interested in providing more opportunities for early childhood care and development. He brought forward three unique bills that died in the first half of the general session. Two of his bills were voted down by a large majority in the Committee of the Whole, and one never made it onto the floor before deadline.
Although none of his legislation seeking solutions made it any further in the process, the Teton County legislator remains optimistic. He said this general session was a good introduction to an issue not previously discussed in-depth in the Legislature.
“I hope that interim committees take up the discussion and keep going with it, because I think that just one bill wasn’t the only solution,” he told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “And I think there is a solution that just requires the body and the committees to put in some work over the course of the interim to address what is essentially a crisis right now.”
Yin isn’t alone in his concern for child care access in the state, nor is it unfounded.
Child care deserts
Child care options are rare in rural and small communities, and more than a third of families in Wyoming live in child care deserts, according to 2022 data released by the Wyoming Community Foundation.
A child care desert is defined as a subdivision of a county with at least 50 children under the age of 5 that has no licensed child care providers or more than three times as many children as licensed day care slots. The Department of Family Services adds that parents working nontraditional hours, such as early mornings, overnight or weekends, have even fewer options.
Teton, Hot Springs and Johnson counties are at the highest points of child care capacity needs in the state, around 100%, but every county has some level of need.
“When we poll people about what their biggest challenges are, a lot of them will tell us child care,” said Wyoming Women’s Foundation Director Rebekah Hazelton. “We’ve heard stories from women who have not been able to work because they can’t find child care in their community, and stories of women who have moved because they haven’t been able to find child care, who have delayed having additional children because of it.”
Even when there is child care available, it can often become unaffordable to families — especially single mothers. The median cost of full-time care for one infant and one preschooler was $1,418 a month in 2020, and the Wyoming Community Foundation reported that a single mother living at 100% of the federal poverty level would spend 78% of her household income on child care.
Federal subsidies for care have been temporarily raised to 75% of the cost of child care, but Hazelton said they aren’t always accepted by facilities in Wyoming when they find one to enroll in.
Day care exemptions
Child care deserts were an issue recognized by Rep. Scott Heiner, R-Green River, who was the sponsor of the sole bill that successfully passed through the House and Senate relating to day care requirements.
“About 13% of our day care facilities have closed in Wyoming over the past couple of years. Some communities have been impacted more than others,” he said. “Niobrara, for example, lost 66% of their day care facilities. There’s several counties that lost a third of their day care facilities.”
His approach differed from Yin’s, though. Heiner hoped to save one provider in his community from closing her in-home day care facility through exemptions in House Bill 35, because the licensure was getting more difficult to adhere to.
The legislation would exempt part-time preschool facilities that enroll eight or fewer children over the age of 3, or 10 or fewer children above the age of 4 in the facility from needing certification. However, the facility would not be allowed to administer medication or prepare food, and the children would not be able to wear diapers and must instead use a toilet.
A 10-hour limit of attendance is also set in the bill, and the facility must adhere to all applicable local health, safety and fire code regulations.
“We had requirements we had to stay within,” Heiner said. “But what this will do is make it easier to have small, home-based day care facilities in these rural communities that are lacking opportunities right now.”
His exemptions bill passed on the House on third reading 56-6 and the Senate 30-1. But similar backing was not provided to the three bills Yin introduced.
When asked about the difference in support, Heiner said the House is closer to the people, because they’re re-elected every two years and there are more representatives. He believes the chamber recognizes the needs of communities can be met with smaller, home-based services, and can move along faster in the development process.
“If you want to build a new facility, it’s going to take time. But for a mom to open up her home and allow some kids to come in after school for a few hours, that could happen immediately, especially with the exemptions that this new policy will bring,” the Green River lawmaker said. “We can react quickly and be up and running in a matter of weeks, rather than years.”
Larger potential solutions
The policy Yin hoped to pass had much larger implications for the state than just in-home exemptions.
House Bill 150 would have authorized any county to create special taxing districts for early childhood development services within any area of its boundaries. The process would start with the Board of County Commissioners adopting a resolution to create the district and end with residents signing a petition to bring a ballot proposition forward for collection of a maximum of two mills on each dollar of assessed property valuation.
If the proposal is approved by the voters, then a funding source would be established in the district to provide preschools or invest in existing child development centers, and a series of rules and procedures would be implemented.
Yin said this is a system other states have implemented before, and he believed it was a good option for promoting local control.
“That would be the first step in trying to get uniformity and working with the Wyoming Department of Education to make sure that kids are headed in the right direction when they’re in these early child care centers,” said House Education Committee Chairman David Northrup, R-Powell, who helped pass the bill out of his committee. “That bill I supported because it allows communities to do it for themselves. They can tax themselves, and that’s a good thing.”
This bill was never given the chance on the floor, and the other two bills were killed in 46-16 and 47-15 votes in the Committee of the Whole. They gave property tax exemptions for child care facilities under a government entity or nonprofit corporation and established a child care facility within the state Capitol complex for state employees.
The Teton County bill sponsor said he believed there is a desire to increase state day care access, but there may just be a disagreement over how to go about it. He was worried his bills died in part because of partisanship, which was a sentiment echoed by Northrup.
“Quite frankly, the attitude of the House is not in favor of raising a tax for anybody, and it’s not in favor of allowing communities to do that kind of activity,” he said. “We heard many times during the discussion that parents should be the one to do that — parents and/or religious organizations.”
While Northrup was a proponent of the special tax districts bill and state employee child care, he was wary of the property tax exemptions. He said both the state and municipalities could take revenue hits, and there would be no backfill if the tax exemption was large enough.
Yin recognized there would be a variety of support depending on the solution, and freshman lawmaker Rep. Andrew Byron, R-Jackson, was an example of this. He co-sponsored the property tax exemption and special tax districts bill but said he didn’t vote in support of a Capitol-based facility for state employees in the end.
He said debate on the floor swayed him in opposition, because it could be an inequitable piece of legislation for state employees not based in Cheyenne. But he is determined to head back to the drawing board in the interim and draft bills with other legislators interested in solving child care disparities.
“It’s statewide, but specifically in my district, we have just a massive demand for child care,” he said. “It’s a dire situation.”
Into the interim
All three of the representatives are looking to the interim to continue discussions, and an amendment has been proposed in the supplemental budget for a study. Yin said $5,000 was approved in the House to research what the cost of child care for all state employees would be in the future. However, this will still need to be approved in conference committee negotiations.
Northrup is also planning on requesting early childhood development and child care as an interim topic for the Joint Education Committee. He said small steps have been made in the right direction this general session, but he believes there is a bigger picture to address.
“It’s going to be a challenge to be able to get the House of Representatives and the Senate to understand that child care is a higher priority across the state than what they perceive it to be,” he said. “You have a bunch of gray-haired old men sitting in the House and Senate making decisions for the public. It’s hard for most of them to understand the dilemma the younger generation is in right now, because that’s not the way it was when they were at a young age.”
Although he said it falls on deaf ears sometimes, he believes it would improve the quality of life for residents, convince families to stay in the state and benefit the workforce. Northrup said parents would be able to join the workforce, contribute to the economy and support their loved ones — making it a “win-win.”
Yin added that the cost of child care is also important to tackle in the interim, because there is a fiscal barrier to pursuing opportunities outside of the home. He said they should make it easier for people to do what they want, especially the large number of women who are impacted due to being the primary caregiver.
“This helps women have more freedom with what they want to do with their lives, whether it is child care or having their own career path,” he said.