To pass a package of tax credits designed to expand affordable child care will require getting by the “knuckleheads” in the state Senate, Missouri Chamber of Commerce President Dan Mehan said Wednesday.

As he greeted the audience and panelists at a forum on the state’s child care needs in Columbia, Mehan blamed the defeat of a bill crafted as part of Gov. Mike Parson’s legislative package on Republican factionalism in the Missouri Senate. The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Brenda Shields, was one step away from advancing to the Senate floor when filibusters first stalled, then ended, its chances for passage.

He singled out Sen. Bill Eigel, a leader amongst senators who regularly engaged in filibusters and a candidate in the GOP gubernatorial primary, for scorn. 

“You can’t go to work if your kids have nowhere to go,” Mehan told the crowd of about 100 gathered at the University of Missouri’s Center for Family Policy and Research. “Due to knuckleheads doing filibusters – Bill Eigel – it didn’t come up for a vote.”

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce has endorsed Lt. Gov. Mike Kehoe for governor in 2024. 

During the forum, panelists repeatedly called the situation a crisis for employers and focused on the benefits that could come from Shields’ legislation. The bill offered credits for donations to support child care centers, business investment in child care needs for employees and investments to expand child care facilities. It was part of a package to support child care needs.

The tax credit bill will be introduced again in 2024, said Shields, R-St. Joseph.

“The state is willing to invest in child care as long as businesses invest in child care,” she said.

Lawmakers did approve a $78 million boost to child care subsidies sought by Parson to encourage child care providers to offer services to low-income and foster families and another $81 million for state-funded pre-kindergarten targeted at low-income four-year-olds.

But with 90 of Missouri’s 114 counties considered “child care deserts” where there are one or fewer child care slots for every three children, the credits are needed to spur investment, said Alex Tuttle, legislative budget director in Parson’s office.

The gap between the need for child care and availability was identified in 2017, Tuttle said, and was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, when closures cut the number of seats by 30%. A 2022 study, he said, showed that only 40% of the statewide need could be met in licensed facilities.

The administration looked at what other states were doing, Tuttle said.

“There was no silver bullet, there was no simple solution,” Tuttle said. “We picked the best of what we could find and built on top of it.”

An investigation of child care spending by The Independent and MuckRock in April found that almost half of Missouri’s children under five, or about 202,000 children, live in child care deserts.

Even in areas not considered deserts, where capacity looks plentiful on paper, many providers say waitlists abound, in part because providers struggle to hire staff. 

Parents seeking slots for their child can wait a year or longer for placement.

The focus of Wednesday’s forum is the impact that dearth of services has on the state’s economy. A 2021 U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation study found that accessibility, quality and cost-related hurdles to child care force many Missouri parents out of the workforce or cause disruptions to their work, costing the state more than $1.3 billion annually. 

“We need to think of child care as critical infrastructure,” said Kara Corches, vice president of governmental affairs for the chamber.

For stories on the difficulty in finding child care placements, the panel didn’t have to leave the room because they provided them. Brenda Lohman, chair of Human Development and Family Science at MU, said she hired a new staff member who lasted 16 days on the job because a family member providing daily child care was unable to continue. 

And Chris Riley-Tillman, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, said he can’t promise newly hired faculty and staff that they will have day care available even though his college operates the Child Development Lab, a center that takes children from across Columbia.

And, Riley-Tillman said, he turned down a request from basketball coach Dennis Gates for guaranteed slots at the lab for children of his assistants.

“This impacts people, even with resources, even in Columbia where you have more opportunities and a place where we literally have a child care facility in our unit,” Riley-Tillman said.

The state program for low-income families provides full subsidies to families at or below 150% of the federal poverty line, equivalent to an income of $41,625 a year, or about $20 an hour for a single earner, for a family of four. There is a benefits phase-out for those between 150% and 215% of the federal poverty level.

In August, roughly 22,000 children received the subsidy in Missouri — a federal program, administered by states through the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Families apply for the state to directly pay a child care provider part of the cost of care.

The state will continue to review rates to move them closer to market rates but only an expansion of the type sought by the legislation will provide additional space, panelists said.

While the Senate filibuster was the bill’s death knell this year, Shields said, the initial introduction was delayed to coincide with Parson’s State of the State address advancing the program.

“The reason it didn’t pass,” Shields said, “is just because it got a late start.”

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