Hearing on Utah child care bills gets tense

The point was to debate a pair of bills that would incentivize Utah companies to offer subsidized child care, but a legislative hearing veered off topic and the exchange between Republican lawmakers and advocates grew tense. Even the chairman said it “got out of hand.”

Advocates said they felt “embarrassed” for community members who came to speak and got uncomfortable after listening to lawmakers’ questions, which asked about the role of the government and whether businesses were already acting in the best interests of employees.

“I think it just showed us that we have a lot more to do,” said Angie Cook, director of public policy and business development for Utah Child Care Cooperative.

As Utah’s unemployment rate is at an all-time low with a tight job market, the state also has a shortage of affordable and quality child care options. “This is hitting especially middle-income families in Utah very, very hard,” according to Rep. Suzanne Harrison, D-Draper.

“For every four kids that need care while parents are at work, there is only one existing spot in Utah,” Harrison told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee at a February hearing. And many families struggle to afford child care.

“This is a complicated issue, and there’s no silver bullet for how to address our shortage of employees, our shortage of licensed child care spots, or how to address the affordability of it all,” Harrison told the committee. “But we owe it to Utahns to try, and we have to work toward solutions.”

Harrison proposed two bills. HB187 created a state income tax credit for employers who provide or subsidize licensed child care. HB89 allowed the Governor’s Office of Economic Development to consider whether a company provides working parent benefits, such as child care subsidies, when offering tax credits.

The committee never ended up voting on these bills and afterward Harrison said they will be set aside this session. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Robert Spendlove, R-Sandy, said he welcomed Harrison to bring the bills before the committee again. “Personally, I thought it was a good idea,” he said.

As they went over Harrison’s tax credit bill, committee members questioned why businesses weren’t providing child care.

“Many of the decisions that are made on benefits are made by companies that have very few numbers of women making those decisions,” said Pat Jones, CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute and a former state senator, who spoke in favor of the bill.

Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, took issue with Jones’ contention.

"I didn’t want to go here, but I’m going to have to go here,” he said, adding it didn’t make sense that companies would “have policies that are discriminatory against women” and would therefore hurt their recruitment.

“I think the argument that you’re making which is that somehow men are making decisions which hurt their companies is problematic, if not discriminatory in and of itself,” Thurston told Jones.

As Jones began to respond, Spendlove interjected and said, “I’m going to rein this in a little bit.” He allowed Jones to respond before moving on.

“This is not a women’s issue. This is a family issue,” Jones said. “But the people that make the decisions are typically not reflective of the population that is usually the people that make the decisions about child care.”

Committee members also questioned why flexible spending accounts offered by employers weren’t enough for families to use to pay for child care. But Harrison said, “What we’re doing right now isn’t addressing the need."

Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, said Harrison’s proposed tax credit “crosses the line of the proper role of government, for me.”

Harrison argued that more than a dozen other states have implemented a similar tax credit, and that Silicon Slopes Commons, the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, and South Valley Chamber support her bill. Plus, Utah already offers a variety of tax credits for businesses, such as for using recycled materials or hiring veterans, so, Harrison asked, “shouldn’t we also encourage businesses to help families?”

When asked about last month’s hearing, Spendlove said Monday, “I should’ve reined in the committee a little bit quicker. The Revenue and taxation Committee really like to scrutinize all the bills that come before us. … But it did go a little bit out of hand and that’s why I stepped in.”

Reflecting on the hearing, Harrison said, “I think it opened the door for more conversations about this very real conversation in our community."

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.