Using Public Land to Fund Child Care? WA Lawmakers are Considering it

The plan calls for using revenue from logging and carbon sequestration on state forestlands to help pay for new child care centers.

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For many Washington families, child care is not only expensive, it’s hard to find.

Lawmakers are now looking to what might seem like an unlikely place to help solve the problem: the state’s forests.

The Department of Natural Resources wants lawmakers to approve a bill that would allow the agency to purchase land and funnel the state revenue it generates to grants that would help pay for opening child care centers in communities where they’re lacking.

This land would be part of a new trust. The revenue would come from either logging or leaving forests intact to capture carbon dioxide – a process known as carbon sequestration.

Bill sponsor Rep. Kristine Reeves, D-Federal Way, said the plan offers a way to creatively fund child care while also helping the planet.

“Our natural resources can fund our social equity needs,” Reeves said. “We can do both.”

‘Benefits would be far-reaching’

Washington’s child care sector faces an array of difficulties. Staff turnover is high, wages tend to be low, and centers operate on thin profit margins and can struggle to stay open.

The state estimates about 280,000 children under the age of 5 need care because both parents are working, but only about 28% have access to a nearby licensed provider. Meanwhile, the average annual cost in 2022 for sending a toddler to day care was about $14,000 at a child care center, according to a report last year from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Reeves’ bill has support from child care advocates and business groups. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle still have questions, including about how the land would be managed and where the money to support the initial purchase of it would come from.

Lauren Hipp, with the nonprofit MomsRising, said revenue from the trust could help ease issues with child care shortages and unaffordability across Washington.

“The benefits would be far-reaching and enormous,” Hipp said during a public hearing on the bill.

The Seattle Metro Chamber and the Association of Washington Business were also among those testifying in favor of the bill at a hearing last Friday.

If enacted, the land trust would expand on work the Legislature did with the sweeping Fair Start for Kids Act, passed in 2021. That law directed revenue from the state’s new capital gains tax toward expanding access to early learning and child care and increasing rates for providers.

The land trust proposal would help fill a gap the earlier law did not fund, which is helping with the cost of setting up a child care business, Reeves said.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families would administer the grants under a program that was temporarily funded with federal relief dollars that flowed during the pandemic. That program, currently unfunded, is set to expire in 2026.

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said using state lands to fund child care is a natural extension of the work the department already does.

The Department of Natural Resources manages about 3 million acres of trust lands, which brings in funding for K-12 schools, state universities, prisons and counties. The lands include forests, agricultural property, real estate and more.

“Child care is the foundation holding up every single sector of our economy, which makes it very relevant to the Department of Natural Resources,” Franz told the Standard.

Unsettled questions

During a public hearing on Friday, lawmakers on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee had concerns about how lands under the proposed trust would be managed.

Lawmakers from rural areas asked that the state focus only on acquiring forested lands at risk of being converted into residential or commercial property, and that these lands remain open for timber harvests.

“It’s important to me as a legislator from a very rural area that these stay working forests,” Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said. Franz said this is one of the department’s goals.

Some lawmakers also pushed for more specific definitions in the bill, such as what lands are considered at risk for conversion to residential or commercial use and which child care centers could receive grants.

Rep. Tom Dent, R-Moses Lake, said the bill is an interesting idea but that there are a lot of generalities surrounding how it would work.

Another point of contention is where the funding would come from to start the trust.

The department wants to use $100 million from the state’s Climate Commitment Act, which generates funds by requiring industrial polluters to pay for carbon emissions. This money would go to purchase some of the land to start the trust. Under current law, money from the climate program must go to programs that reduce the effects of climate change.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, told reporters last week she wasn’t sure if the land trust proposal fits that description.

Franz argues that it does, given that the purchased land could help absorb carbon.

Ryan Murphy, Franz’s deputy chief of staff, also pointed to the unexpectedly high amount of money that came in through the climate program. The Legislature is looking at ways to spend those funds, Murphy said, and setting up the child care land trust could be an option that benefits both the environment and families.

One twist is that future Climate Commitment Act revenue could be cut off if voters approve an initiative on the November ballot that would repeal the law.

Reeves said the state could set up the trust this year and look for funding later. But tying it to the Climate Commitment Act, she said, could ensure the program helps fight climate change.

She also acknowledged that establishing a new land trust could take more time than what’s left in the 60-day session. If the bill falls short this year, Reeves said she hopes to keep working on the policy in the future.

“Working families can’t wait, quite frankly, for us to figure this out,” she said.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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