February 17, 2014 Updated: February 17, 2014 at 7:50 am
DENVER - When Andrea Konig was asked to look after her 3-year-old grandson, she faced a hard truth that she couldn't quit her job but also couldn't afford child care.
"It would have been impossible," said Konig, whose older grandson accidentally drowned in a hot tub in Breckenridge while in the care of foster parents.
Konig, of Colorado Springs, applied for and was granted financial assistance through the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, enabling her to take care of the younger of the two boys after the tragedy.
"It's stable for him, with the help, with CCAP, it's made it possible for me to do that," she said.
"I wish there were more opportunities for people to have lower-cost child care because most of us have to work for a living."
But for every family who gets assistance through a state-funded and county-run child care system, there are hundreds that fall through gaps of coverage.
Closing them and helping low-income families work their way out of poverty with child care assistance is a top priority for several lawmakers at the state Capitol this year.
Some of the gaps are frustrating and nonsensical.
Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, hopes to change Colorado's tax credit for child care so that the state's most needy families can take advantage of the assistance.
As it stands now, state law allows families who make less than about $60,000 to take a percentage of the federal child care tax deduction as a Colorado tax credit. The less you make, the larger a percentage you can claim.
However, only middle-income families can use the tax credit, because they are the only ones with enough tax liability to use the federal deduction.
"It's almost like you're double penalized," Exum said. "The poorest of the poor can't use this tax credit. I think it's a matter of fairness."
According to the state's tax expenditure report, in 2009 people claimed about $3.4 million in the credit, despite it being barred from the poor.
Exum's bill would allow taxpayers with a federal gross income of $25,000 or less to receive a tax credit of up to 25 percent of their child care costs capped at $500 for one child or $1,000 for two.
But Exum said legislators might cut that in half before the bill is heard in committee because of a large fiscal note that estimated it could cost the state $9 million in 2014.
Claire Levy, a former lawmaker who is head of the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, said she hopes lawmakers look beyond the cost for a number of child care related bills proposed this session.
"We're looking at barriers women face for getting access to skills training and full-time work," Levy said. "What comes up in the list of barriers is access to affordable quality child care."
Colorado is among the least affordable states when it comes to child care, although it depends on who you ask to determine just how unaffordable it is.
Levy says the median income of single moms in Colorado is $26,000 a year and the cost of child care for an infant or toddler a year is about $12,000.
"It's gobbling up half of her income," Levy said.
The Colorado Child Care Assistance Program was designed to help offset that effect - the moment where it makes more sense for someone not to work and instead to collect public assistance in lieu of paying for child care.
It depends on what county you live in, but the assistance program serves people who make 130 percent or less of the federal poverty line. But in practice, counties often increase that threshold because they don't have enough funding to serve all those who would qualify at the 130 percent rate.
Bill Jaeger, with the Colorado Children's Campaign, said there are 210,000 children under the age of 12 who live in households with incomes less than 125 percent of the poverty line.
Yet CCAP only has slots for up to 11,000 kids a month, Jaeger said. Turnover is so high among those slots that about 30,000 kids a month rotate through.
The Division of Child Care that overseas the program in the Colorado Department of Human Services declined to be interviewed for this article and didn't provide budget documents requested by The Gazette.
Levy and Jaeger are supportive of legislation that would help the assistance program, although those bills are being worked out.
Some of the legislation, likely Senate Bill 3, would address the "cliff effect" - the moment where a raise bumps a family out of qualification for assistance, but doesn't offset the cost of child care.
"We want to step down assistance as income goes up so that it really isn't an either, or decision for a low-income mother," Levy said.
House Bill 1022 aims to reduce the extremely high turnover rate of children in the program by extending authorization for the assistance to a full year.
And finally a third bill is in the works that would address several other issues, including access to quality care.
Konig said while applying for and receiving assistance was easy, finding a quality center that would accept her state assistance was difficult.
"Other locations I had checked into with CCAP, there were a few that I would never put my grandchild or my dog into for that sake," Konig said.
"I feel terrible for those kids. The kids are the ones that ultimately pay the price. I really wish there were more high quality schools that would allow CCAP."
Levy and Jaeger said many high-quality child care centers don't accept CCAP because it reimburses them at a rate lower than the cost of providing quality care. Centers must either decide to take a loss, not accept CCAP or pass the expense onto other full-price parents.
Konig said it was a blessing she found Princeton Academy in Colorado Springs, where there is a safe, loving environment for him that accepted her state assistance.
Contact Megan Schrader