A speaker speaks at a podium that says "Save Child Care Counts" and is surrounded by people, and the state Capitol in the background.
Wisconsin Sen. LaTonya Johnson and other Democratic state lawmakers call on Republicans who control the Legislature to permanently fund child care support grants on Thursday, June 15, 2023, in Madison, Wis. The Child Care Counts program has until now been paid for by federal pandemic aid. (Harm Venhuizen / AP)
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Republicans who control the Wisconsin Legislature voted early Friday to end funding for a pandemic-era child care subsidy program over the objections of Democrats and child care providers who argued that the move would be devastating for needy families and the state’s economy.

The GOP-controlled Joint Finance Committee, which writes the state budget, voted to kill funding around 2:30 a.m. after the start of its meeting was delayed more than 10 hours.

The Child Care Counts program handed out nearly $600 million to more than 4,900 child care providers from March 2020 through March 2023, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.

Providers struggling to make ends meet as parents worked from home used the money to cover expenses such as rent, mortgage payments, utilities, cleaning and professional development. The funding will be exhausted by February of next year, according to the fiscal bureau.

Democratic Gov. Tony Evers proposed making the program permanent using more than $300 million in state money over the next two years, but Republicans rejected that.

Democratic Sen. Kelda Roys said that Child Care Counts money saved child care centers from closing during the pandemic and warned that failing to continue the grants “will have a devastating impact” for children and the state’s economy.

“They know that child care will close. They know that families will no longer be able to work,” said Brooke Skidmore, owner of The Growing Tree child care center in New Glarus. “There is no logical reason not to fund this.”

Skidmore said Child Care Counts funding allowed her to increase her employees’ wages by $2 an hour as she struggled to hire enough staff to meet demand from parents.

“Parents, for the most part, are only able to have careers because of the work child care providers do,” said Tim Ballard, whose five-year-old daughter has been enrolled at The Growing Tree since she was eight weeks old.

“I don’t know how they can look at these children and say, ‘You don’t deserve this. This is too much for you,’” said Roys.

Republicans on the budget committee did not address the removal of Child Care Counts funding during debate on the plan, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Rep. Jessie Rodriguez, R-Oak Creek, said that Republicans are working on additional legislation to help people open more child care centers.

Evers’ office issued a statement ahead of the vote calling on Republicans to save the program. His spokesperson Britt Cudaback blasted the decision and the timing of the vote killing the funding.

“Wisconsin Republicans waited until many working families in their districts were fast asleep before they voted to gut hundreds of millions of dollars for Child Care Counts to make child care more affordable and accessible statewide,” she tweeted. “Profiles in courage.”

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Todd Richmond is a reporter with The Associated Press who covers the Wisconsin state legislature as well as breaking news and enterprise stories throughout the state.