Trying to please constituents on the volatile issue of child support is as easy as happily resolving bitterly contested divorce cases, lawmakers are discovering.
Members of the Judicial Interim Committee Wednesday listened to dozens of custodial and non-custodial parents passionately argue the merits and the weaknesses of the child support guidelines that become effective Oct. 1.Every word of praise offered about the guidelines that supporters say will provide predictable and equitable awards was countered by angry criticisms by non-custodial parents who say they will be paying outrageous support payments without the assurance of visitation or accountability.
It was clear that lawmakers sense the impossibility of pleasing both groups.
Legislators during the interim meeting expressed a desire to make child support awards more uniform by endorsing the guidelines, adopted officially by the State Judicial Council June 27, but also indicated an interest in resolving other sticky issues surrounding divorce before approving the support guidelines. Those additional issues include visitation, accountability for support, collection of payments and gender bias.
In accepting the new guidelines, the judiciary mandated that a committee further study issues of gender bias and accountability for the use of child support payments. However, they indicated that the issues of enforcement of child visitation and improved methods of collection require legislative action.
The debate Wednesday centered on whether legislators should endorse the judiciary's new guidelines or reject the guidelines and begin all over again. Legislators could attempt to override the judiciary's guidelines, form another task force, study all the issues involved with divorce and then propose legislation to enforce their recommendations.
After hours of discussion, no decision was reached. The child support and visitation issues were slated for yet another session of debate Aug. 17.
Rep. Ted Lewis, D-Rose Park, told his colleagues that he believes some of the momentum for resolving all the divorce-related issues - especially visitation rights - will be lost if the support guidelines are endorsed.
"I would prefer to solve all the issues as a package. We need to keep everyone's feet to the fire. We're kidding ourselves if we think we've done much by only dealing with the support issue. We still have a lot of work to do."
Lewis said he has received many calls from non-custodial parents who feel they are becoming "nothing but a wallet" to their children with the new guidelines because they are not assured visitation rights.
The legislator said he would only endorse the guidelines if his colleagues would "take an oath" they will stay interested in taking on the other unpopular issues of divorce.
Bill Walsh, director of Utah Issues, urged lawmakers to heartily endorse the judiciary's new support guidelines as an "urgently needed starting point in improving justice in divorce cases."
He warned that postponing the acceptance of new guidelines would hurt many Utah children living on support payments that are inadequate and delay justice.
Forming a legislative task force to study all issues would be "creating a many-headed monster," he said.
Following the interim meeting, State Court Administrator Bill Vickrey told the Deseret News he believes it is unnecessary for lawmakers to conduct their own study of support guidelines. However, he recommends legislators continue their evaluation of enforcement of visitation rights and collection problems.
Child support issues are more appropriately addressed by the judiciary as guidelines instead of mandatory laws to allow judges flexibility in deciding cases on an individual basis. Visitation and collection are issues that require the absoluteness of laws passed through legislation, Vickrey said.
"At this point, debate has been heard from all sides of the child support issue. It's time to move ahead.
"No one is professing that the guidelines are perfect. But it's a beginning point for judges to use as a guideline - not as mandatory law - in setting awards that are fair and consistent."