Governor Maura Healey has said the child care woes experienced by parents around Massachusetts need a “legislative solution.” The problem has lawmakers’ “full attention,” according to the House speaker. Ditto for Senate leaders.
Their fellow — and would-be — office-holders would like to be included in those solutions.
Amid promises to tackle the worsening shortage of available and affordable child care, state leaders are again being pressed to allow Massachusetts political candidates to use campaign funds to help cover ballooning child care costs while they run for office.
The change, supporters argue, could help remove a hurdle for working parents, including women, to run for office, including for seats in a Legislature that’s disproportionately male. Nearly 30 states allow candidates to use campaign funds for child care, as does the federal election system.
Meanwhile in Massachusetts, candidates for state offices and elected officials already use political donations to pay for a variety of other expenses, from pizza for volunteers to body armor and tuxedos. But not babysitters.
“We need to lower the barriers of entry to run for office,” said Samantha Hammar, who is running for mayor of Melrose. A mother of two who quit her job to run for state Senate in 2018, Hammar described dragging her then 6-year-old twins to campaign events because she couldn’t afford child care, even though her campaign had the funds to cover it.
“This is well past due,” Hammar said. “Until we have people who are impacted by the policy at the table making it, we’re never going to get it right.”
A legislative effort in 2017 to allow candidates to expense child care to their campaigns failed, and then in 2020, a legislative commission recommended the change, arguing it should be allowed when it’s the “direct result of the candidate’s campaign activities.”
There are multiple proposals before the Legislature this session, and supporters hope their efforts will benefit from the current attention on Beacon Hill to the broader problems of child care. Healey and legislative leaders have vowed to help bolster a child care industry suffering from staffing shortages and low worker pay.
Parents feel it, too: At $26,000 a year, the cost for center-based child care for an infant in Middlesex and Norfolk counties is the third-highest in the county. It’s not much less elsewhere in the Massachusetts, and the situation has contributed to parents and women leaving the workforce, what state Senate President Karen E. Spilka calls a “she-cession.”
“Now is the first session where people are committed to talking about child care,” said state Representative Joan Meschino, a Hull Democrat who cosponsored one bill with state Representative Mike Connolly, of Cambridge, to allow candidates to expense child care to their campaigns.
“If you want people back in the workforce and you want a more diverse workforce, you have to build equity,” Meschino said. “I’ve heard the speaker say it, I’ve heard the Senate president say it. Now, that’s the argument that I’ve been making in service, in government. . . . It’s about how to elevate this and get it to the forefront of leadership’s mind.”
That remains to be seen. The state Senate twice approved such language last session, but it never reached then-governor Charlie Baker’s desk.
Some legislative leaders have questioned what the exact parameters of such proposals should be: Should candidates be allowed, for instance, to use campaign chests to pay for child care in a non-election year? Should it be extended to include other dependents beyond children?
Representative Daniel Ryan, the House chair of the committee on election laws, said in a statement that lawmakers are reviewing the bills but are working through what he called “some implementation concerns.”
One proposal, for example, would limit such expenses to within 18 months of an election. Other proponents, meanwhile, argue it’s unfair to place restrictions on paying for babysitters when politicians don’t face similar limits on the other expenses allowed.
“It’s never not campaign time,” said state Senator Patricia D. Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat and a sponsor of one proposal. “There are all kinds of things you have to do even before you enter the arena.”
It’s also unclear whether Healey would back it. The Cambridge Democrat said last week that she’d have to review any bill before her and that she couldn’t “recall any specific conversations” she’s had in which child care was cited as a barrier to more people, including women, running for office. Healey made history last year as the first woman ever elected governor in state history.
“Certainly, we want to do everything we can . . . to ensure that nobody is precluded from running for office because of a socioeconomic circumstance or otherwise,” she said after leaving a Mass. Commission on the Status of Women event.
At least 28 states — including each of Massachusetts’ five direct neighbors — have authorized the use of campaign funds for child care, many through legislation, according to the Vote Mama Foundation, which supports mothers running for public office. That’s an increase from late 2020, when just about one dozen allowed it, according to the Massachusetts legislative committee report at the time.
Nationally, very few state legislators — a little more than 5 percent — are mothers of children under 18 years old, Louisa Duggan, of the Vote Mama Foundation, told Massachusetts lawmakers in May during a hearing on the campaign finance bills; it’s even less in Massachusetts — just 4 percent in 2022. Fewer than one-third of state lawmakers in Massachusetts are women overall.
Parents who have to juggle young children and campaigning are at a “distinct disadvantage, and the vast majority of single-parents households are women,” said Representative Daniel Hunt, a Dorchester Democrat and a father of a 3-year-old and 6-week-old. “The collective goal for all of us is to get more women involved in politics.”
And parents, too, can speak firsthand to navigating the impact of school closures or having to eye a toddler wandering the yard during a Zoom meeting, said state Representative Kate Lipper-Garabedian, a Melrose Democrat and mother of two who filed one of the campaign finance bills with Hunt.
“You want people who are reflective of a larger community,” she said.
The legislative commission in 2020 also recommended a variety of ways to craft the law: that approved child care settings include homes, child care centers, or individual babysitters, but also warned against allowing paying candidates’ family members for care. Only relatives who run professional child care services should qualify, it concluded.
While state law does not expressly prohibit using campaign funds for child care expenses, the state Office of Campaign and Public Finance has previously advised against it, saying it considers that a form of “personal use” of funds prohibited under campaign law.
But the campaign office also isn’t directly opposed to the legislation, and several bills would task the office with creating regulations to better define and enforce its changes.
The office “would be in a position to administer these changes,” Bill Campbell, the agency’s director, said, “should the Legislature adopt [them].”