COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Child care providers in Ohio would get less money back from the state for taking care of children from low-income families under Gov. John Kasich's budget plan, leaving them to trim costs at a time they say they're already stretching to make ends meet.
Still, as the state faces an estimated $8 billion budget shortfall, they say they could have fared worse.
No child currently enrolled in the state-supported child care program would lose the benefit. But the Republican governor's two-year spending proposal would scale back the income threshold for new working families trying to get into the system.
Providers say that could make it harder for struggling families to qualify for the program.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Tasha Johnson, the interim executive director of the Dayton Christian Center in Dayton.
Kasich wants to change the income requirement to 125 percent of the federal poverty level from 150 percent. That proposal would mean a family of four could earn no more than $27,938 a year to be eligible for subsidized child care in the 2012 and 2013 budget years. Currently, the family could make about $33,525 or less and qualify.
"Nobody as a result of what we've done in the budget is being dropped from the rolls." Ohio Gov. John Kasich
Kasich's plan would continue to allow families to remain on the program until their income reaches 200 percent of the poverty level, or about $44,700.
"We decided early on that child care was critical," Kasich told reporters after touring a child care facility in Columbus last week. "Nobody as a result of what we've done in the budget is being dropped from the rolls."
That's a relief to parents such as Kenya Woods, who receives state-subsidized child care for her two children.
Woods and her husband were laid off in 2008. Unable to make their mortgage payments or find steady work - and with their second baby on the way - they sought help from the state to lower their child care payments.
Woods was paying $150 a week for child care for just her son but now pays about the same price for both children each month.
"There's a lot of instability around us," said Woods, 41, of Richmond Heights near Cleveland. "But the one thing that has been stable is their daycare. That's really been our saving grace."
Woods now is a dance instructor for Cleveland public schools, and her husband, a truck driver, is searching for work. She said the state help has allowed her the time to work, finish resumes and look into going back to school while knowing her children are safe and receiving good care.
"This has been completely instrumental," Woods said. "We can still work. That's No. 1."
While the kids in the state-supported program could stay on, providers would see a 7 percent total cut in the rate the state reimburses them. Not all facilities would feel the same reduction because it depends on the market rates for child care in their areas.
New rates have yet to be determined, putting providers like Johnson in a holding pattern. A 7 percent cut for her center would mean about $39,000 fewer state dollars, she said.
Johnson oversees a facility in a blighted neighborhood on Dayton's west side. Almost all the 55 kids at the center are enrolled in child care services supported by state funding. Parents have a co-payment based on their incomes and the size of the family. It's typically less than $100 a month, she said.
"It's really an area of service needed," she said. "Those are working families that without the subsidized child care, they would not have child care and they would lose their jobs."
About $134 million in state money went to early child care this year, with the bulk going to subsidized care. Some of the money also goes to quality incentives for the providers, such as continuing education for staff. Kasich's budget calls for $123.5 million next year, and the same amount the following year.
About 104,000 children statewide are covered by the program at any given time, said Ben Johnson, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. That number is expected to drop to 103,000 next year because of the new income requirement but would return to the same level by 2013, he said.
Subsidized child care had been helped in the last budget by about $100 million in federal stimulus dollars, Kasich said. He contends he had to ask providers to give more to make up for the lack of that federal money and make sure those children in the system wouldn't be booted from it.
The reduction comes at a time when some facilities across the state already are facing economic challenges, said Linda Day-Mackessy, who chairs the Ohio Association of Child Care Providers.
"We were bracing for much larger cuts," Day-Mackessy said. "We are relieved that the cut is not larger, but any cut will be difficult."
Some of the group's nonprofit members are better positioned to absorb the rate reduction because they can apply for grant money, Day-Mackessy said. But other providers, such as Pietra Foster, will have to squeeze more out of their facilities' budgets.
"It's past belt-tightening," said Foster, the executive director of the Richmond Heights Academy near Cleveland.
Foster said she has already trimmed the number of field trips, put off getting new buses, delayed major improvements to the building and foregone salary increases for her staff and herself.
"We're really down to the bare bones at this point," she said.
Of the 150 children who attend the academy, about 140 are supported by state money.
"I understand that we have a huge hole to fill, but it seems like the government would be more willing to raise a little bit here and a little bit there," Foster said. "I guess at the end of the day, keeping the amount of children we have in the system, at least for the time - I highly respect that. It could be worse."