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More than a third of the early childhood teachers at Karin Swenson's Rochester child-care center have a master's degree in education — yet her staff earn an average of just $14.66 an hour, without benefits.

"Dog walkers, parking lot attendants make more money than we do," Swenson said at the State Capitol, where some legislators have sought to draw attention to a shortage of child-care workers around the state.

House Democrats offered a $500 million plan on Thursday for early childhood aid that includes grants and loans for child-care providers and child-care assistance for low-income families. Both Republicans and Democrats say there is a crisis in the state's child-care industry, but they have clashed over how — and how much — to spend on the issue this year.

While child-care workers, employers and community organizations welcome pieces of the DFL proposal, they say Minnesota needs to keep working on long-term solutions to get more people into the profession.

"It doesn't matter if you fund the whole child-care system if you don't have the workforce to do the good work," Swenson said.

Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, argued that injecting cash from the state's $1.3 billion projected budget surplus into the child-care assistance program would help.

He said a large chunk of the $190 million Democrats are proposing for that program would go toward raising the amount of money paid to providers.

"The economics of this industry are broken. Parents could not possibly pay more than they do right now. … Providers could not possibly make any less," Pinto said. "And we need to recognize that the fundamentals are broken, so partly it just needs an infusion of funds."

The state's projected budget surplus is not the only source of funding up for debate this year.

Legislators also are trying to shape a bonding bill to finance public infrastructure projects with long-term debt. The Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities is making a pitch to include $20 million for building or expanding child-care facilities in the bonding bill, which would be matched with $20 million in local dollars. The group asks its member cities every year about top concerns, said coalition lobbyist Scott McMahon.

"For years, it had always been infrastructure, transportation, broadband. In the past five years, child care has just exploded on this issue. And it's probably the number one economic development issue in greater Minnesota," he said.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, cautioned that any use of public debt for private facilities would be inappropriate, though he said bonding money could go to public schools' child-care space. He also warned against using one-time surplus dollars for things like early learning scholarships and the child-care assistance program.

"It's a worthy effort but it's impractical," Abeler said of the House DFL plan. "You can't build a program on one-time money."

Pinto argued that one year of boosting access to child care and prekindergarten would still give at least one class of children a leg up. Some Democrats said they hope to sustain the spending in the next budget cycle.

Both Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, and House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, said they are pleased to see House Democrats proposing early learning scholarships to help 3- and 4-year-olds attend school-readiness programs, though they disagreed with some of the details in the DFL approach.

They also weren't sure about the $190 million cost of the Democrats' scholarship proposal.

The Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, offered support for pieces of the House DFL plan, including the early learning scholarships and grants for child-care providers.

"We know there will be an active debate about the proposed size and one-time nature of this investment — as well as other spending and tax reduction priorities. And we're looking forward to working with the Legislature to get this right," said Lauryn Schothorst, the Chamber's workforce development policy director.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz, meanwhile, has said he wants to focus on bolstering the state's reserves with the surplus dollars. Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann added Thursday that the governor is waiting to make spending decisions until he gets the updated surplus numbers from the next economic forecast in a few weeks.

But he said Walz's supplemental budget this year will be focused on education.

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044