Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, administers the oath of office to Gov. Janet Mills in Augusta on Jan. 4, 2023. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — A child care overhaul boasting a wide coalition of supporters may need a lot more funding than initially suggested, sending a top legislative Democrat into high-stakes negotiations with Gov. Janet Mills’ administration.

Cost has been a sticking point between Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, the bill’s sponsor, and the Democratic governor whose health department opposed an initial version because it deemed it underfunded and duplicative of other efforts to bolster the system.

Lack of child care is a major issue across Maine, from areas in southern Maine where employers are clamoring for it to “deserts” in rural areas with few programs. The number of home-based daycare centers in the state dropped by more than a quarter during the pandemic, mirroring national issues with a system that relies on lower-wage workers.

Jackson’s measure contains several proposed fixes, including doubling a monthly wage stipend for child care workers from $200 to $400 and opening subsidies to families making up to 125 percent of the state’s median income. They are now limited to those at up to 85 percent.

The initial proposal seeks roughly $30 million per year to make the changes. Jackson said Wednesday that discussions with the health department and Maine Revenue Services led to a rough estimate of $11 million more needed to implement the bill, growing it above $40 million.

Jackson told the Legislature’s health panel he is working with the Mills administration to make several suggested tweaks and signaled optimism the department may eventually support it. One of the administration’s concerns revolved around the bill increasing Head Start eligibility to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, he said.

“I think we’re in a pretty good spot,” Jackson said.

Jackson’s conversations with the department “have been very cordial and he was able to agree on a number of other language suggestions to the bill that he hopes to incorporate in the final version voted out of committee,” his chief of staff, Max Rush, said after the hearing. A department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the state’s position.

The Democratic leader has worked for months to assemble a rare coalition in Augusta. His overhaul has united business interests including the Maine State Chamber of Commerce and HospitalityMaine with progressive groups they often fight on economic and labor issues. Among the latter groups are the Maine People’s Alliance and the Maine Women’s Lobby.

Other provisions in Jackson’s bill would ask DHHS to submit an annual report on child care subsidies to the Health and Human Services Committee and implement a program by 2030 that limits the cost of child care to no more than 7 percent of a household’s income for a family earning up to 250 percent of the median family income.

The roughly 4,700 child care workers in Maine make an average annual income of $32,080, according to the most recently available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advocates in support of his measure have pointed to a 2021 survey that found 85 percent of Maine’s child care centers were experiencing staff shortages primarily due to low wages.

The Mills administration supports the goals of the legislation but opposed the current version because it is “significantly underfunded” and would “complicate and duplicate” existing work surrounding child care, Office of Child and Family Services Director Todd Landry said in testimony earlier this month.

For example, he estimated increasing eligibility for child subsidies to 125 percent of the state’s median income would require about $15 million annually, rather than the $3.7 million called for in the bill, with that funding gap leaving three-fourths of eligible families, or about 850 children, uncovered.

One Republican on the health committee urged caution and patience Wednesday with reaching agreement on a child care overhaul.

“I’m hoping we slow the bus down a little bit and make sure that we can address this rightfully … because this is a big ticket item,” Rep. Ann Fredericks, R-Sanford, said. “If we get this wrong at this time, shame on us.”

Mills is not ignoring the child care issue in her proposed addition to the two-year budget, but she is seeking less money than Jackson is calling for. She wants $4 million in ongoing funding to double a refundable state income tax credit that helps families pay child care expenses.

Former state Sen. Paula Benoit, a Republican from Phippsburg, is among those who have testified in support of the measure. Benoit shared how she was having breakfast with two friends in Topsham. Their hostess had a 3-month-old baby strapped to her as she worked.

“While the baby was content to be with her mother and made everyone smile as they entered the restaurant, we learned she brought the baby to work because she could not afford the $250 a week in child care, so she had no other option if she wanted to work,” Benoit said.

Billy Kobin is a politics reporter who joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023. He grew up in Wisconsin and previously worked at The Indianapolis Star and The Courier Journal (Louisville, Ky.) after graduating...