Linking child care to construction projects: too big a stick?

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MOST Massachusetts lawmakers know little about sausagemaking. But some of the measures they grind through the legislature often resemble sausage. And nowadays there's a lot of talk about linkage. By the latter process strings are attached to bills. Those wishing to do something are compelled to meet certain conditions for the benefit of others. For example, major developers of properties in Boston are required to invest in projects in city neighborhoods.

Now comes a new type of linkage at the state level, in the human-service field. It would tie building construction in the commonwealth to the provision of child-care facilities.

The legislation, which cleared the House late last month and awaits Senate action, is patterned on a San Francisco ordinance. It would require those building or adding 50,000 or more square feet of commercial or industrial space to set aside at least 2 percent of the structure for child care. The specially designated area would be equipped and run by a nonprofit provider chosen by the property owner to serve the needs of employees, and those of tenants or neighbors.

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Critics of the measure, while agreeing that more child care would help working mothers and probably expand the job market, contend that this legislation is the wrong way to go. Instead, they favor an arrangement involving state business-tax incentives, similar to that already offered under federal tax laws.

But sponsors of the measure, including State Rep. Saundra Graham (D) of Cambridge, doubt that a so-called ``carrot'' approach would provide enough day-care centers, and thus would keep many potential workers out of the labor force. They insist the linkage requirement would not be a hardship for a developer and would not discourage new structures, such as shopping malls, factories, or office buildings.

Although unsuccessful in getting an alternative measure involving tax incentives substituted for the legislation, a couple of House-Republican amendments were inserted. They would provide tax deductions for the rental income lost on the portion of the new or expanded structure used for day care.

The proposed measure already included a linkage waiver arrangement under certain conditions. To qualify for the waiver the developer would have to convince state officials that there was already sufficient available child-care space in the immediate area to accommodate those who would work in their building.

Also eligible for exemption from linkage would be projects where the work force would number less than 20 during an eight-hour shift.

Also, it would be possible for a developer to avoid having to provide space for child care by agreeing to pay 2 percent of the rental income, or its equivalent if owner-occupied, to a locally administered fund for siting and operating child-care facilities close by to serve those employed in the new or expanded structure.

While generally supportive of encouraging more child-care centers, as well as other means for making it more convenient for working parents, some leaders in the business community view linkage as an intrusion by government with what amounts to a ``stick.''

Certainly the increased availability of child care, especially if reasonably priced and well administered, would encourage more women to work outside the home.

The fate of this legislation, however, will not rest on whether it is a good thing for more women with small children to enter the job market. The number of working mothers is growing and seems likely to continue to grow in the coming years. Obviously there is a need to provide proper care for more and more little ones.

Many companies and institutions have long since recognized the need - and done something about it. With or without the pending legislation there is little doubt this trend will continue.

The issue state lawmakers must decide is the best way to help those mothers who have to work, or want to work, get proper access to child care. But instead of forcing a company to do what it either does not want to or cannot afford to do, a better course might be to rely on a system of incentives in the free-enterprise spirit.

And one of these just might be competition for workers in the labor market. Those offering child care or with such facilities reasonably nearby well find it easier to attract women workers, and hold on to them.

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