Child care needs greater attention from the Legislature

April 6, 2023 12:24 pm
(Daria Nipot/Getty Images)

(Daria Nipot/Getty Images)

Veto day may have been the official end of the legislative session, but it did not mean the end of legislative work. The work of lawmakers continues past those nine weeks in the winter as veto day also marks the start of the summer study season.

On veto day, the Legislature’s Executive Board met to choose the subjects for its summer studies. From 17 selections, they hit on two that were deemed the most worthy: long-term care sustainability and county funding and mandated services.

On April 20, the board will meet again to assign legislators to the summer study committees. Those committees will meet throughout the summer, taking testimony from experts and stakeholders. In the best of all worlds, they will emerge from their studies with legislation for consideration during the next legislative session.

To their credit, lawmakers won’t stop at just two summer studies. According to Republican House Majority Leader Will Mortenson, informal work groups will also delve into topics as wide ranging as child care, nuclear energy, alternate graduation requirements, alternative certification for teachers, public notices and official newspapers.

While all are worthy topics, it would have been best if the Legislature devoted an official summer study to the topic of child care. It’s easy to predict that no matter how much effort they put into their work groups, someone is bound to dismiss their findings because they weren’t part of a formal summer study.

In the list of potential topics, child care was mentioned in three summer study proposals. Gov. Kristi Noem placed an emphasis on the topic in her re-election campaign, yet there was only one child care bill offered in the recent legislative session and it was tabled.

Republican Sen. Lee Schoenbeck of Watertown, who made the request for the long-term care study, said that in a series of meetings with community and business leaders earlier this year, the number one issue they discussed was child care. This isn’t surprising as child care is one of the keys to workforce development.

As they try to attract business and industry, South Dakota communities have to ask themselves if they can attract enough people to the area available to fill jobs. If the answer is yes, they have to work on finding affordable housing for those workers. The Legislature took a giant step with the passage of Senate Bill 41, which freed up $200 million in housing infrastructure funding that had been put on hold for a year after concerns about who had the legal authority to disburse the funds.

If communities can get past those hurdles, they need to make sure they can offer affordable, dependable child care. That’s a topic that the Legislature has had trouble getting its arms around in the past. Larger businesses that can afford it have tackled the subject head-on, subsidizing their employees’ child care costs or offering on-site child care.

Some are looking into private/public partnerships to provide child care. While officials at every level struggle for answers, parents continue to deal with the dwindling number of in-home day cares and ever longer wait lists for service.

Republican Sen. Tim Reed of Brookings will lead an informal task force on child care, bringing together legislators, economic development professionals and child care workers. In a South Dakota Searchlight story, Reed said that the study would not focus on subsidies or expanding education to pre-kindergarten.

While they may not be the emphasis of the study, those topics should be considered. Establishing pre-kindergarten or offering child care subsidies would be expensive, but consider that the Legislature has just come off a session in which it was so awash in cash that it could offer a $100 million sales tax cut. In a meeting with the Joint Committee on Appropriations, the Department of Social Services reported that it has $38 million in discretionary funding from the American Rescue Plan act that must be spent by September 2024.

Affordable child care is one of the keys to workforce development. Certainly the Legislature can’t plead poverty if Reed’s task force comes up with an expensive solution.




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Dana Hess
Dana Hess

Dana Hess spent more than 25 years in South Dakota journalism, editing newspapers in Redfield, Milbank and Pierre. He's retired and lives in Brookings, working occasionally as a freelance writer.