A bill taking an “outside the box” approach to easing Utah’s child care needs by retrofitting unused space in state buildings for privately operated facilities was introduced Thursday in the Utah Legislature.

The sponsor of SB176, Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, said the pilot program is one way to help deal with the loss of some $400 million in federal funds used to keep child care facilities open during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her proposal, expected to carry a price tag of more than $5 million, calls for converting empty offices in six state buildings located in Salt Lake County into child care centers that would be turned over to private employers to run.

The bill comes as the state’s top community leaders, businesses and philanthropy organizations asked the Utah Legislature to address the state’s child care crisis in a letter urging they take “bold action” this session.

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“This is our outside the box thinking of how we find solutions. There needs to be multiple solutions,” Escamilla said during the Senate’s daily media availability, along with an understanding of “our limited access to funding.”

Senate Majority Whip Ann Milner, R-Ogden, said the state can’t replace the lost federal funding.

“We don’t really have that kind of money. What I think we have to do is think about what we can do,” Milner said, adding she’s looking at legislation for a future session that would give companies a tax credit for providing on-site child care.

The Legislature’s Republican supermajority in the House and Senate have made an income tax cut a top priority this session. The Senate just passed a bill reducing individual and corporate income taxes by $160 million, the amount set aside for a tax cut late last year.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, made it clear there’s no interest in bypassing what would be a fourth year of tax cuts to make more money available for the child care issue.

“I suppose that’s a matter of priorities,” Adams said. He added that in the past, lawmakers have been able to fund both tax cuts and increased spending in key areas.

Senate Budget Chairman Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, said while there should be room in the budget for a tax cut once new revenue estimates are released later this month, when it comes to a new child care program that’s “probably not” going to be the case.

“But a lot of times, we can figure out a way,” Stevenson said, suggesting that “rather than taking a plunge into a big project” it may be that lawmakers come up instead with a plan to “wade into it” over several years.

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Democrats in both the Utah House and Senate have come out against any tax cuts this year, citing what they see as more pressing needs in the state including increasing access to child care.

An estimated 77% of Utahns live in what’s known as a child care “desert,” meaning there’s either no licensed child care available nearby or it’s extremely limited. Nationwide, that number is just over half the population.

“We have one of the biggest deserts in the nation,” Escamilla said later, describing her bill as addressing both access and costs by opening new facilities that can charge less than market rates because of the state’s involvement.

The six sites, which include state buildings in West Valley City and Taylorsville, should be able to accommodate hundreds of children, she said, with 60% of the places reserved for the children of the private employers that contract to operate the facilities.

The remaining spots, Escamilla said, would be be available on a first-come, first-served basis for state employees and the general public.

Gov. Spencer Cox’s proposed $29.5 billion budget released in December included $5 million to expand child care services through the public-private partnership, which was recommended by the Unified Economic Opportunity Commission.

“This has been in the works a while,” Escamilla said, noting Utahns across the economic spectrum are being affected by the lack of child care. “This child care crisis is for everyone. This is pretty equal opportunity.”