North Dakota lawmakers float $66M package to address child care cost, availability

Rep. Emily O’Brien and other bill backers say boosting the child care sector would relieve some of the strain on the state’s labor-starved businesses as parents choose to return to work.

A woman with long, blond hair in a black and white patterned blazer and black turtleneck holds a paper and speaks into a microphone at a podium.
North Dakota Rep. Emily O'Brien, R-Grand Forks, speaks at a legislative committee on Tuesday, April 18, 2023.
Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — Affordable child care is hard to find in North Dakota, but state lawmakers say an eight-figure funding package would make the service less costly and more available.

House Bill 1540, a late entrant into the legislative pipeline, would dedicate $65.6 million in state funds to address North Dakota’s lack of economical child care, proponents say. Gov. Doug Burgum originally proposed a $76 million child care package.

Rep. Emily O’Brien, R-Grand Forks, and other bill backers say boosting the child care sector would relieve some of the strain on the state’s labor-starved businesses as parents choose to return to work.

Most of the funding in O’Brien’s proposal would prop up an existing state program that pays a portion of child care costs for families with lower incomes.

The bipartisan bill includes $22 million to expand the child care aid program for families with income below 75% of the state’s median level — about $80,000 a year for a family of four. The appropriation would help fund child care for an estimated 1,800 children over the next two-year budget cycle.


Another $15 million would be used to incentivize child care businesses to take on more infants and toddlers.

The bill would have the state assume all child care costs for families making less than 30% of the median income — about $32,000 a year for a family of four. The policy change, which comes at a two-year cost of about $2.3 million, would completely cover child care costs for an estimated 2,200 low-income families.

The state also would put up about $5 million to match private employers’ contributions for their workers’ day care costs, while $3 million would cover day care matching costs specifically for state employees.

About $15 million would go toward training for child care workers and incentives for their employers to start up new businesses and take up new clients.

The bill does not include direct income tax credits to parents with child care costs — an idea featured in another proposal killed by the House of Representatives last month.

Families making less than 85% of the median income level — about $91,000 for a family of four — are eligible to receive at least some financial aid on child care costs through the existing state program. Applications can be filed online, through the mail or at a local Human Service Zone center.

Many of the bill’s proposed expenditures previously appeared in the mammoth Department of Health and Human Services budget, but lawmakers opted to create a separate proposal to shine a spotlight on child care, O’Brien said.

O’Brien, a mother of two young children, said she pays upwards of $20,000 a year in child care costs. She noted many North Dakotan parents struggle to pay for the expensive but vital service.


Bill supporters say stay-at-home parents would have a greater opportunity to return to the labor market if more child care expenses were covered by the state.

Andrea Pfennig, a lobbyist for the Greater North Dakota Chamber, said an estimated 32,000 households in the state have kids under 5 and a need for child care. Those families would reap significant benefits from the bill, she said.

The legislation will first receive a vote in the House. If the bill succeeds, it would move on to the Senate.

Both chambers previously signaled a willingness to spend on workforce solutions, including child care programs.

Jeremy Turley is a Bismarck-based reporter for Forum News Service, which provides news coverage to publications owned by Forum Communications Company.
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