Business leaders and members of the Legislature said Wednesday that the state needs to make improving early childhood programs its top priority in the upcoming year because of the benefits to families and businesses.

“I don’t know what our priorities are, but we need to make early childhood No. 1,” said state Rep. Steve Carter, R-Baton Rouge. Carter said there’s bipartisan support for early childhood programs, noting that he used to serve on an education committee with Gov. John Bel Edwards, when the Democrat was a member of the House, and Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge.

“They’re very supportive of early childhood, the problem of it is money,” Carter said during a program organized by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry to make a case for high-quality child care.

One possible solution to funding high-quality child care programs for children under the age of 4 could be in a measure that Carter sponsored earlier this year in the Legislature, where half of the money that would be saved by students graduating high school early would be funneled to the Child Care Assistance Program. The rest of the savings would go to the student, who could use it to cover college tuition costs.

Carter noted that with the backing of LABI, Edwards, Republicans and Democrats, the Legislature was able to pass sweeping criminal justice reform measures this year. Improving early childhood programs is something that has similar bipartisan support, he said.

According to a report released Wednesday by the Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, a nonpartisan group that focuses on issues facing preschoolers, along with LSU’s Public Policy Research Lab, child care issues cost businesses and organizations $816 million a year in employee absences and worker turnover. This is causing the state to miss out on nearly $84 million a year in tax revenue because of the lost employee wages.

Of the more than 250 Louisiana parents who were polled for the survey, nearly 41 percent said in the past three months they missed at least one day of work because of child care issues, and more than 42 percent said they had to leave work early.

The report calls for an infusion of state or local funds into early child care and education. Any money that goes into the system would see a return in reduced employee costs for businesses, higher earnings for parents, increased tax revenues for governments and better outcomes for children.

Caitlin Codella, senior director of policy and programs for the chamber foundation, said an economist for the Federal Reserve in Minneapolis found that every $1 spent on early childhood education has a $16 return. “The business case is clear,” she said.

The report said there needs to be more research into how public and private money can offset child care costs. It suggests that businesses give child care subsidies to workers or directly invest in local child care agencies.

Lane Grigsby, the chairman emeritus of Baton Rouge-based Cajun Industries, said he predicts child care will become an industry-borne expense.

“It’s ultimately the only way we’re going to get a workforce,” he said. Grigsby predicts more companies will offer in-house child care and there will be more public child care programs, with parents getting money from the government to cover the costs. “When the parents have the money in the backpack of the kid, quality education will follow,” he said. “Competition makes us all better.”

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.