JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A judge has frozen Mississippi’s plan to require some parents to use a finger scanner to sign children in and out of federally subsidized child care.
Hinds County Chancery Court Judge Denise Owens ruled Thursday that the state’s economic impact statement for the program is so incomplete that it didn’t meet a legal requirement for a good faith effort. She issued a preliminary injunction freezing the program at least until the state Department of Human Services files an updated statement.
“When people are subjected to new rules that affect their business, they have a right to know every known, reasonably conceivable impact that plan might have on their business,” Owens wrote in an order filed Thursday. The case was brought by Delores Suel, who owns two child care centers in Jackson.
It’s the second time that Owens has intervened in the plan. Last year, she ordered the agency to restart its rule-making process because it had failed to issue an economic impact statement at all.
DHS spokeswoman Julia Bryan declined to comment late Thursday, saying the department needed time to review the decision. It’s not clear if the agency will appeal. It could also choose to restart its rule-making process a third time.
The ruling comes on the same day that child care centers had to decide whether to accept the scanners or quit the subsidy program. Owens heard testimony on the subject Wednesday and Thursday.
The finger scanning machines would have been required starting Oct. 1 for 18,000 children whose care is subsidized by federal grants that help low-income parents pay for care while working. The state currently has a waiting list of 8,000 children for the federal vouchers, and said it hoped to use $15 million to $18 million in savings from the finger-scanners to bring more children into child care.
Both center owners and DHS agreed those savings would come from cutting payments to centers. Jill Dent, who oversees child care for DHS, testified Wednesday that she believed that many child care operators are charging the state for days when children are not present.
Owens ruled those estimates, derived from Louisiana’s experiences with a similar program, were too shaky to be relied on, and said the state needed to disclose a more complete methodology for estimates of benefits.
“The economic impact statement … is simply a cursory statement,” Owens wrote. “The discussions MDHS had with persons in Louisiana yielded no detailed data or methodology.”
Operators said DHS was unfairly trying to take money away from them, and said they also could face the costs of replacing damaged scanners, projected to cost about $1,000 apiece.
“Ms. Suel and others similarly situated are facing, in this matter, challenges to their livelihood,” Owens wrote. “Ms. Suel would stand to lose money if the MDHS proceeds under the current economic impact statement without first researching fully the financial impact on providers.”
At a news conference late Thursday, Suel called for Dent and DHS Executive Director Rickey Berry to be fired. She also called on the state to reconsider its plans instead of plowing ahead again despite opposition from owners of child care centers who depend on the vouchers for revenue.
“We had not been heard, but now we have,” Suel said. “Right now we just feel that DHS is not competent enough to do the job, even if they do appeal, even if they do start the process over.”
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