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Lawmaker: 'It is difficult to provide child care'

BISMARCK -- A handful of female lawmakers fear the Legislature is not properly addressing child care and children's issues.

Senate Assistant Minority Leader Joan Heckamen, D-New Rockford, and Rep. Kathy Hawken. R-Fargo, held a news conference Friday morning, saying they are worried that proposed amendments cut too much funding from bills, and don't address the true issues.

"It is already difficult to provide child care, and it is even more difficult for families to find someone to care for special needs children. The solutions to our child care crisis can be found this legislative session, it is just a matter of political will," Heckamen said in a statement. "We have the means to provide parents with the reassurance that there will be someone to take care of their children while they pursue career opportunities in North Dakota."

The two addressed House Bill 1422, which originally asked for $13 million for the Department of Human Services to provide grants to help address a workforce shortage in child care centers around the state.

Hawken said western North Dakota is the hardest hit and in the most need of funding for child care facilities and health care issues, more specifically children's health care.

The bill was amended down to $1.6 million for technical assistance and shared services for child care and $500,000 for data collection and evaluation. The amended version passed the House and is on its way to be heard in the House Appropriations Committee.

The amended bill would also increase the ratio for the number of children that can be cared for by one person. The number varies based on the age of the children.

The issue about adequate child care providers and facilities was the top issue for North Dakotans in the North Dakota 2020 and Beyond Initiative, which was released in November.

Rep. Robin Weisz, R-Hurdsfield, chair of the House Human Services Committee, said the Legislature is looking at many unique ways to address health care and child care needs, and people shouldn't be worried because the issues will get their fair share of hearing and funding by the time the session is over.

"The state and Legislature has done a great job to address the problems," he said. "The state hasn't been lax in addressing the issues."

An amended bill that would have provided funding for Head Start programs also was a large concern, which failed on the House floor Friday afternoon.

Sponsored by Rep. Jessica Haak, D-Jamestown, House Bill 1356 originally asked for just more than $6 million for the Department of Human Services to administer grants through the Head Start program, but was amended down to a study.

The federal government provides some funding for the program that helps promote school readiness for low-income or at-risk children ages birth to 5 through social and emotional development.

Despite its amended version, Hawken pushed for the bill during the bill's floor discussion. "This would have done great things for Head Start," she said, calling the amendment, "lovely."

Sen. Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, said the state's large budget has made lawmakers make sure they aren't spending too much on one issue, "We have to be reasonable about what we should do," she said.

"We can't possibly pass all the bills, we don't want to miss out on any good ideas," she said, but knows the Legislature is, "going to be enhancing services in all areas."