JEFFERSON CITY — Thousands of single or divorced parents could face new child support fees ranging from $10 to $350 under legislation that would add a few bucks to Missouri's meager bank accounts.
The legislation spotlights the unusual position in which Missouri lawmakers now find themselves as they scramble to balance a budget damaged by plummeting state tax revenues.
Some lawmakers now are open to things they normally would reject.
The Republican-led House, for example, typically is averse to anything capable of being construed as a tax or fee increase. Yet the House voted 130-21 last week to pass legislation containing the new child support fees.
In fact, opposition from lawmakers five years ago helped persuade the Department of Social Services to rescind plans to impose one of the same child support fees that the House now wants to require the department to charge.
Amid much budgetary uncertainty, Missouri officials are pursuing some potentially contrary solutions.
The new child support fees, for example, are supported by the Department of Social Services and would be charged by its Family Support Division. The legislation assumes state employees would continue to pursue child support payments and handle requests to modify those payment orders.
Yet Gov. Jay Nixon recently proposed to privatize some of the duties of the state's roughly 800 child support enforcement employees. Nixon, who has the support of some senators, says the move could save the state money. The fees are a separate issue and could occur even if the state privatizes some duties, a governor's spokesman said.
Missouri's Family Support Division handles about 358,000 child support cases.
The proposed fees could sap money from both custodial and noncustodial parents, though low-income parents would be exempt.
- Custodial parents who are not receiving cash welfare or Medicaid benefits would be charged a $10 annual processing fee to receive child support payments. The fee could affect nearly 58,000 cases.
- Custodial parents would be charged a $25 fee to receive overdue child support payments that are seized from tax refunds due to noncustodial parents. That fee (which was proposed but shelved in 2005) could affect more than 20,000 cases, with an exemption for parents on welfare or Medicaid.
- A $60 fee would be charged for the division to review whether it's appropriate to modify a child support order — either because a noncustodial parents' income has risen or fallen. Whichever parent asks for the review would have to pay the fee, unless that person is a past or current Medicaid or welfare recipient or has an income below $2,256 a month. The fee could apply to an estimated 4,300 cases.
- Parents seeking to modify child support payments would be charged a fee of $175 for those with incomes between $2,256 and $3,610 monthly, or $350 for those with higher incomes. Those fees are projected to affect more than 4,900 cases.
All told, the fees could generate nearly $2.5 million, $837,952 of which would go to the state and the rest to the federal government.
Republican Reps. Bryan Stevenson and Tim Flook, two attorneys who support the new fees, contend some parents who could afford private attorneys have passed the buck to taxpayers by asking the state to handle modifications to their child support orders.
Stevenson, of Webb City, said he is more focused on correcting inequities than in drumming up money for the state. But Flook, of Liberty, said the new fees also are one little way to help balance the state budget and reduce the federal deficit.
"In this budget climate, I can't think of a better time to pass this," Flook said.
Others insist a poor economy is precisely the wrong time to impose new fees.
Although paid by parents, the fees reduce the money available to buy food, clothing and other necessities for children, said Lois Adams, a Portland, Ore., resident who is the international president of Parents Without Partners, a support group for single parents and their families.
"Single parents have a tough enough time without the government making it harder," Adams said.
Republican Sens. Brad Lager and Jason Crowell said it's unlikely the proposed child support fees will make it through the Senate.
"If you're going to just nickel and dime fee increases throughout state government, that's no different than a tax increase," Lager, of Savannah, said.
Crowell, of Cape Girardeau, called the proposed fees "stupid." He noted that Missouri has $2.3 billion of overdue child support payments — an indication of "an ineffective collection mechanism."
Instead of charging new fees for a system that he says isn't working, Crowell backs Nixon's plan to privatize more of the duties related to child support collections.
"This is the time to reinvent government to be more efficient, not grow — and continue to grow — the inefficiencies of government," Crowell said.