The women's caucus of state legislators is shepherding through the Maryland General Assembly numerous child support bills that are designed to help parents collect money from delinquent ex-spouses.
Legislators are capitalizing on the budget-conscious mood of the General Assembly by pointing out that enforcing child support keeps people off welfare, while lobbyists are trying to widen the scope of the bills to help all parents collect support payments.
A key bill that barely missed passage in the waning days of the Senate last year and is expected to have no problems this time would extend free legal services to nonwelfare parents. Eligibility would be determined by the state's Bureau of Support Enforcement.
"I think it's an area people don't fully understand," said Del. Anne S. Perkins (D-Baltimore City), who is sponsoring the bill. "But when they do understand it, it becomes both a conservative and a liberal issue. Nobody quarrels with the fact that both parents ought to share in the support. And it saves the state money to have the responsible parent, rather than welfare, support the child."
"There are more and more arrearages, particularly as the economy goes bad, and all you're doing is putting them on the welfare roll. So if you make the father pay, the public's not footing the bill," said Sen. J. Joseph Curran (D-Baltimore City), chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
A group called the Organization for the Enforcement of Child Support feels that enforcement services should be available to all parents, regardless of income.
"We need to have services for all people. Bills that only reimburse the state for money expended do not help support children. Welfare recipients don't need this money. They're getting welfare," said Beth Wiseman, president of the group.
Although the federal government ordered states to provide services to both welfare and nonwelfare families, an opinion by the Maryland attorney general stated that local jurisdictions were required only to help parents who receive public assistance.
"We are essentially out of compliance with federal law," said Perkins, whose bill would provide free legal services for any custodial parent who could not afford to pay a lawyer.
"Child support legislation cuts across the political spectrum. There's broad-based support for this," said William Benton, deputy secretary of the state Department of Human Resources. "Last year there was a lot of interest. This year we're working more together and hope some bills will pass. There's a lot more homework being done on the bills this year."
The Montgomery County delegation, one of the most active in child support legislation, has submitted a local bill that would require all child support payments to be made through the county clerk rather than directly to the recipient. The clerk would keep a record that could be used in legal proceedings and send out notification when payments were not received. Currently, the Montgomery County Circuit Court orders only some parents to pay through the county clerk. Another bill would order the state comptroller to withhold child support payments with taxes.
Identical bills were passed by the Montgomery County delegates and senators last year, but were given an unfavorable report by the House Judiciary Committee.
"It's important to keep these bills alive as vehicles of discussion until legislators come to realize the immensity of the problem and until they are more comfortable with the legislation," said Del. Marilyn Goldwater (D-District 16), who heads Montgomery County's child support subcommittee.
Both the state Department of Social Services and the comptroller's office voiced opposition to having payments collected by the comptroller, because of the added work for the comptroller's office and because the Department of Social Services already collects payments for welfare recipients.
The Montgomery County delegation expects the bills to run into similar problems this year in the House Judiciary Committee. The traditional General Assembly courtesy of passing local bills that have local delegates' and senators' support has changed over the years as standing committees are taking a closer look at these bills to see if they will set a precedent for the state.
"The hope is still there that they will let Montgomery County have these bills," said Goldwater."Maybe they will view it as a pilot program in one area before considering statewide legislation."
Other child support bills include:
Senate Bill 99, which would make wage liens automatic for parents on welfare;
House Bill 259, which would give courts the power to post notice of delinquent child support accounts with credit bureaus;
House Bill 420, which would require correctional facilities to collect earnings of prisoners for court-ordered child support payments;
House Bill 444, which would extend the statute of limitations in civil cases to three years to make it the same as the statute of limitations in criminal cases;
Senate Bill 220 and House Bill 275, which would limit wage liens to child support payments;
House Bill 75, which would charge courts with the responsibility of including medical costs in child support awards.