NORTH MANKATO — A group of local GOP lawmakers and legislative candidates hope to work with child care providers and parents to help rewrite stringent state regulations over the next few months.

Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, plans to meet with a group of 20 to 30 people to help decrease Department of Human Services regulations many child care providers say force out more day care businesses than they help.

"We need to make sure that we can make this work for everybody," Munson said during a Republican-sponsored forum on child care issues Wednesday night at South Central College.

The town hall was organized by House District 19A candidate Kim Spears, who was joined by 19B candidate Joe Steck; Munson; Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake; and Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont.

Part open forum for providers and parents, part campaign opportunity for legislative candidates, the forum focused largely on how to address regulations providers believe exists to punish them rather than protect Minnesota children.

Mankato-area providers led by Elizabeth Bangert of Here We Grow Early Childhood Center mounted a public campaign at the Capitol this spring to urge lawmakers to review the state's child care rules and make DHS enforcement a more transparent process.

Bangert and her staff pored through and publicly shared about 4,000 citations for more than 300 child care centers throughout the state. That DHS public data spans about eight years, from 2010 to December 2017.

Bangert told lawmakers earlier this year they found 41 citations over toilet plungers found in the bathroom, 40 violations for adult scissors on a countertop and a violation for prickly grass. One child care center was cited for rabbit feces and a stick in nearby grass.

Child care workers say DHS inspectors don't always apply state guidelines consistently and give out citations and fines for seemingly minor or frivolous infractions. Those fines could force providers, who make less than $9 per hour on average according to state officials, to close their businesses.

DHS officials have acknowledged working on using more variances and updating regulations over the past year, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree more needs to be done. Lawmakers passed some minor changes to child care regulations earlier this year and set up a working group on child care, but they couldn't muster enough support to address the large-scale changes advocates want done.

That isn't enough for many providers, who are concerned their right to work with children could be taken away if they miss even one piece of paperwork in an increasingly complex enforcement system.

Char Rivers, an in-home child care provider who has worked in the industry for almost three decades, said the state has become more stringent with rules and regulations since 2006, and the stress has caused providers to leave their profession by the hundreds each year.

"The rules flipped, and (DHS officials are) now using it against us," she said.

There's a growing child care shortage throughout the state as more providers close their doors, unable to keep up with business costs or regulations. Minnesota went from more than 11,000 providers to less than 8,500 over the past 10 years.

The Mankato-based Center of Rural Policy and Development found Greater Minnesota lost more than 15,000 spots for children at child care businesses between 2006 and 2016. The majority of that came from in-home providers.

Losing in-home providers is especially significant for Greater Minnesota, where more than 2/3rds of children are cared for by family providers rather than child care centers. In the metro area, it's the child care centers who care for a majority of children.

Though child care centers are trying to fill in gaps, centers aren't opening as quickly in rural areas, where the population density can't justify operating large-scale facilities.

"You just hit that impasse where it's just not economically feasible," said Marnie Werner, executive director for the Center of Rural Policy and Development.

Munson hopes to meet with area providers and parents on a monthly basis to develop rules he can introduce in the Legislature next year.

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