Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Is child support debate about fairness, or public subsidies?- MN

St. Paul Pioneer Press 04/05/2005 Is child support debate about fairness, or public subsidies?

Excerpts below:

Proposed by Sen. Tom Neuville, SF630's key provisions would have more fairly divided the financial responsibility for children between divorcing mothers and fathers. Child support would be based on the income of both parents, not just the payee (usually the father).

Enter Sen. Linda Berglin, the powerful chair of the Finance Committee's Health and Human Services Budget Division. She introduced SF1900, which basically gutted SF630. Because of the power structure in the Senate, it was clear to Sen. Neuville early on that he would lose in a tug-of-war over competing bills.

"This is the same legislator that has stood in the way of this bill the past few times it has made it to the Senate," said Rep. Tim Mahoney, who has proposed legislation in the House to make joint physical custody the law of the land in Minnesota. "To expect her to change her habits now would be surprising."

No doubt. What was surprising — or perhaps instructive — was what came out in the debate last Thursday. Sen. Berglin's aim clearly isn't fairness, but using the child-support guidelines to make up for what she sees as shortcomings in the state's social service programs for low-income single mothers.

"The purpose of the family law system is not to subsidize the public welfare system," Sen. Neuville said. "It's to be fair to both parents."

Minnesota collected $590 million in child support last year, according to the Department of Human Services' 2004 report. About $30 million of that went to low-income mothers, according to Sen. Neuville. So Sen. Berglin is gutting a bill that would correct a decades-old, system-wide injustice in the name of 5 percent of the program's recipients. Talk about your special interest.

He and Sen. Berglin are expected to lock themselves in a room later this week with foam bats and see what they can work out. But it's clear that if it makes it to the Senate floor, SF630 will be a shadow of its former self and do little to reform the system — the bill's original intent.

More promising is HF1321, scheduled to be heard today by the House Jobs and Economic Security Committee. Sponsored by Rep. Steve Smith, with input from Rep. Mahoney and Rep. Rob Eastlund, its most important provision is for a presumption of joint physical custody. That's important because under the current system all benefits flow from the designation of "custody." That has often resulted in all-out thermonuclear war between mothers and fathers, with the most harm often done to the children. Under HF1321, joint physical custody would be the default remedy if two parents can't agree on a parenting plan or try to use "custody" as a wedge to extract more money.

"It would have a more profound effect on reducing child support than my bill," Sen. Neuville said of the House legislation. More important, if it passes, it would go to conference committee, along with SF630, and, we can hope, be melded into law.

"My goal all along has been to craft legislation that is fair to both parties and recognizes that it's important that both parents be fully involved in the lives of the children," Sen. Neuville said

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