Frank Sinatra may have waxed poetic about love and marriage, but the Utah Legislature this year appears to be singing a decidedly less-romantic tune.
At least a half-dozen bills now awaiting lawmakers' approval deal with the aftermath of marriage, with a heavy focus on recovering the millions of dollars in back child support owed by noncustodial parents.
The package of laws are being pushed by a handful of lawmakers who, along with experts and advocates, created an informal committee to look at all sides of the matter.
"I think that most people in this state love their children and take care of their children, but there are enough that have created a problem that can't be ignored," said Rep. Julie Fisher, R-Fruit Heights. "It's like the elephant in the room."
A December 2005 legislative audit found that $325 million is owed to Utah children in unpaid child support. Out of a caseload of 80,000, 47,000 cases are in arrears, according to the state Office of Recovery Services.
The two most contentious proposals are repeats of bills that failed last year SB23, sponsored by Sen. Greg Bell, R-Farmington, which would update the state's 13-year-old child support guidelines and, in most cases, result in notable increases across the board; and Fisher's HB15, which would allow the state Office of Recovery Services to suspend the drivers' licenses of habitual nonpayers of child support.
Both face strong opposition from noncustodial parents, mostly fathers, who say the measures are based on bad data and stereotypes that of the struggling single mother and the "deadbeat dad."
"There's two very polarized public opinions between these two groups," said Tony Curtis, a divorced father of three teenagers. "The reality is, both of these parents are struggling; both care about their kids."
Curtis, a senior software engineer, traveled to Capitol Hill last week, armed with a PowerPoint presentation analyzing the impact of SB23 on noncustodial parents. After factoring in tax deductions and child care credits available to custodial parents, Curtis testified, a noncustodial parent with a monthly income of $2,700 would have half the disposable income of a custodial parent who earned $1,850 a month.
After paying rent, utilities and automobile insurance, the noncustodial parent in Curtis' scenario was left with $163 to feed himself and his children, as well as provide transportation, entertainment and other needs for the kids during their time together.
"This is not just a set of numbers. These are real people," Curtis told committee members, who unanimously supported SB23. The bill could be voted on by the full Senate as early as Monday.
Support for SB23 and HB15, which was also unanimously approved in committee last week, is frustrating for fathers like Curtis, who believes the entire system of child support is biased against noncustodial parents.
"There is such a contrast between the level of accountability that they hold a noncustodial parent to and every other parent in the universe," he said.
Lawmakers say they have tried to take noncustodial parents into account this year, with proposals to encourage increased visitation and privacy for noncustodial parents.
"We also wanted to bring forward some bills that would address some of the needs and concerns about noncustodial parents, which are legitimate as well," said Rep. Lorie Fowlke, R-Orem, who is carrying a bill that would add Halloween to the list of holidays eligible for visitation and allows for overnight visits with infants aged 12 to 18 months.
Fowlke is also sponsoring legislation that would require couples considering divorce to file a temporary separation order and attend an orientation course to "educate parties abut the divorce process and reasonable alternatives."
One bill actually being praised by noncustodial parent groups is HB32, sponsored by Fisher, which would take statewide a pilot program that allows mediation for parents in visitation disputes.
Federal mandate forbids the state Office of Recovery Services from linking payment of child support to visitation, which often leads to frustration for noncustodial parents who fulfill their obligations but are denied time with their children. The mediation program has been a success in Salt Lake-area courts for almost four years, Fisher said, and expansion could aid families throughout the state."That is the goal here," she said. "We want parents paying child support; we want parents spending time with their children."
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