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Costs of care: Senator’s staff hears concerns about child care shortage in area

Grant Oppegaard, a small business consultant, speaks to representatives from U.S. Sen. Tina Smith’s office about the issues child care workers face during a round table discussion Tuesday at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)1 / 2
Carson Ouellette, a regional field representative for U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, introduces a round table discussion on child care on Tuesday at the Northwest Minnesota Foundation. (Jillian Gandsey | Bemidji Pioneer)2 / 2

BEMIDJI -- The major hurdles facing child care providers, as well as those seeking care for their children, remain staffing and affordability. That’s led to a child care shortage across the state, and especially in Greater Minnesota.

That was the main theme of a meeting Tuesday in Bemidji put on by the office of Democratic U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, who have been traveling the state to discuss challenges for child care across Minnesota.

During Tuesday’s session in Bemidji, area child care providers discussed some of the major issues they face, with staffing and affordability again topping the list.

With staffing, child care experts said there’s not a big enough talent pool regionally to draw from to hire employees, which can force them out of business. And attempts to raise worker pay to make the jobs more attractive can be a negative, effectively passing on those costs to parents looking for child care and making it more unaffordable.

The largest hurdle for affordability is for individuals who earn $15 to $22 per hour, said Grant Oppegaard, a University of Minnesota Duluth business consultant who attended Tuesday’s meeting. At those wages, many can’t afford most child care services and also don’t meet the thresholds for financial assistance for child care programs, he said.

According to Smith’s staff, the issues brought up in Bemidji echoed those they’ve heard around the state.

“We’re hearing very similar things across Minnesota,” said Carson Ouellette, a regional field representative for Smith. “Sometimes, we have a different mix of people who can make it into the room, which makes what we talk about different. But, across the state, we see a lot of the same issues.”

“We’ve also seen some interesting models,” Charles Sutton, senior outreach director for Smith, said. “Like in Detroit Lakes, they had essentially taken family based child care providers and had a community center where they were able to house those providers in one location. That’s sort of an innovative model that helped providers we spoke to there.”

Another option for improving child care services, Oppegaard said, is providing tax exemptions to for-profit businesses. Oppegaard said this would be similar to senior care centers, which operate with tax exemptions.

“The senator wants to know what’s working in the state,” Sutton said to ideas such as Oppegaard’s. “Minnesota can be uniquely collaborative and innovative to figure out how these challenges can be addressed. When we see that happening, the senator can bring that to D.C., to spread something that’s working in Minnesota to the rest of the country.”

Along with Bemidji, other meetings have been held in Rochester, Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes, St. Cloud, Mankato and St. Paul. As the meetings take place, Sutton said Smith is working on legislation to support child care on college campuses to help student parents.

Sutton said Smith also saw the recent federal omnibus budget as a “win,” because it almost doubled the child care development block grant, which is the main federal investment. Additionally, it included an increase in funding for Head Start.

Just before the Bemidji meeting, Republican state Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, who is challenging Smith for the Senate, said it was the failed policies of the Gov. Mark Dayton administration that led to the decline of providers in Minnesota. Smith was Dayton’s lieutenant governor before taking over Al Franken’s U.S. Senate seat.

“Minnesota is facing a child care crisis, particularly in our rural communities. Caring, able providers are leaving the profession in droves because of burdensome regulations and punitive restrictions,” Housley said. “This has left parents scrambling -- and even if they do find care, they are faced with mounting costs.

“In fact, under the Dayton-Smith administration, Minnesota has seen a historic decline in providers,” Housley added. “Over the past decade, Minnesota has had a net loss of over 3,000 family care providers -- the equivalent of an estimated 30,000 slots.”

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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