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2005 Testimony

Testimony Before The Senate Human Services Committee

Judy Lee, Chairman

SB 2289 - Child support guidelines and child support reviews

January 24, 2005

Chairman Lee, members of the Senate Human Services Committee, I am James Fleming, Deputy Director and General Counsel of the State Child Support Enforcement Division of the Department of Human Services. I am here to testify on Senate Bill 2289.

We do not oppose Senate Bill 2289. The concept of income shares has not been discussed in a legislative hearing for four years, and with the discussion you just had on the overall structure of our program, it is understandable to consider how a change to an income shares model might fit in a state-administered program. We also recognize that the sponsors of the legislation have long been supporters of effective child support enforcement.

We all support the sustained collection of affordable child support, because of the benefit to kids and taxpayers. These concepts go hand in hand – you cannot collect what the obligor cannot afford to pay. While we do not oppose Senate Bill 2289, some of the reasons the Department did not support income shares legislation in the past still exist. Therefore, we have prepared a substitute amendment that addresses these areas but also maintains the concept of fairness in the original bill.

Before discussing our substitute amendment, I’ll summarize three of the past concerns with income shares.

First, in 1999, Mike Schwindt said to the Senate Judiciary Committee “We see little to be gained by switching to income shares except the perception of greater fairness.” We believe this is still true. Based on the interim committee analysis leading up to the consideration of similar legislation in 1999, we do not expect any substantial change in ongoing child support obligations as a result of switching to an income shares model for the guidelines.

Second, the fiscal effect of the bill is significant, calling for the addition of roughly 10 FTEs and significant reprogramming of FACSES. This does not include the hundreds of hours of staff time, and the time of the Child Support Guidelines Advisory Committee, to completely rewrite the guidelines. We also have years of helpful court precedent interpreting the existing guidelines. The teaching in these cases would be rendered obsolete and the learning process would start all over again.

Third, some of the refinements that were made in our existing guidelines to address obligors’ concerns, such as deductions for multiple families and extended visitation, would be lost.

Nevertheless, we hear the same complaints you do. We struggle with the impression many obligors still have today that the goal of the child support enforcement program is simply to collect the maximum amount of child support possible. It is a reputation that is hard to shake. Many people, including legislators, are not aware that an obligor can apply for our services, request review and adjustment services, and that if the obligor’s income warrants a reduction, the necessary court documents will be filed by the regional child support enforcement unit.

We also want to address areas where we feel the program can be more fair and responsive to everyone. If the State is interested in investing additional resources in the establishment of child support obligations to be more responsive or “fair” to obligors, we support that change, but would like to propose a substitute amendment for the committee’s consideration. We believe our amendment would cost roughly the same as the bill as introduced, if not less, but would produce a tangible improvement in the affordability of child support obligations. In addition, by establishing and maintaining obligations that more closely track changes in an obligor’s actual income, we would expect our performance to improve on at least two of the five federal performance measures: collection of current support and the number cases with a collection on arrears.

As with income shares, the focus of our amendment is on how much an obligor has to pay. However, rather than comparing an obligor’s income to the obligee’s income, which rarely results in a change in the obligation, we propose to review obligors’ incomes more frequently in targeted areas where we see real differences between what obligors owe and what those obligors can actually afford.

Madame Chairman, in preparing this testimony, I spoke to our customer service manager, who has been handling customer calls herself every day for many years. I asked her what she thought was the cause of more obligor complaints: the fact that the obligation was determined without regard to the custodial parent’s income, or that the obligor had changes in his or her income but could not obtain help from us in changing the ongoing child support obligation outside the three-year review cycle. She told me that without a doubt, the much more common complaint was that the obligor lost a job or experienced some other change in income that made it hard to afford the current child support obligation. We believe this experience is important for the committee to know as it reviews this legislation and our proposed amendment.

This concludes my testimony. I would be happy to answer any questions the committee may have.


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