The state of Utah got stiffed with $7 million in bounced checks last year. Talk about a bad debt collection problem.

To help with that, Gwen Anderson, director of the state's debt-collection agency, says state government should start accepting credit cards and debit cards. That way the state gets paid and the card companies have to collect on the charges.Visa should be accepted here.

Actually, the $7 million in bad checks is only a small part of legislative leaders' concerns over debt owed the state.

State Court Administrator Dan Becker thinks - it's just an educated guess on his part now - that the courts are owed $44 million in overdue fines and fees by people who can be put in jail if they don't pay up.

Still, they don't pay up.

And Becker admits the judicial branch of government hasn't done a good job in tracking them down. The current system can't even tell Becker how much money is owed in three of the larger court jurisdictions - West Valley City, Murray and Sandy. Those systems will be running by the end of July.

He promises debt tracking will really improve come October when a new, integrated debt tracking system comes on line and he can tell how old different debts are.

All told - not including what's owed the courts, because they don't really know - the state is owed $287 million in "free" revenue - money that is not obligated to some specific state program and/or owed to third parties that the state is collecting for, like overdue child-support payments owed to struggling families.

While much of that debt will likely never be collected, even a small percent could be a great boon to the state - which

is spending $2 billion on rebuilding I-15 and looking for "one-time" money for all kinds of building construction and repair.

"This is a real problem. We have to get a handle on this," said House budget chairman Marty Stephens in what could be called an understatement. "It's disappointing that the Legislature has to dig this out; that we have to be the policeman instead of state agencies working to solve these problems."

Stephens, R-Farr West, is a banker by trade and said he couldn't believe that some state agencies don't know how much they are owed or couldn't tell leaders how old the debt is.

Unlike the court system, the State Tax Commission knows how much it is owed - $331 million. But, said commission deputy director Barry Conover, he can't say how old the debts are. The current, antiquated accounting system tracks all the taxes and penalties owed by a business or individual but not how old the debts are.

The commission's new, multimillion-dollar UTAX system, which starts coming online in mid-1999, will give that information. But the whole system won't be working until 2001. Conover promised legislative leaders Tuesday afternoon that before then, Tax Commission officials will be able to provide Anderson's Office of Debt Collection with better numbers.

Anderson said Tax Commission referrals - delinquent accounts ripe for her private collection agencies - have actually dropped over the past several months as commission officials concentrate on bringing the UTAX system online. The private collectors are willing and able to take on more accounts, but state agencies aren't referring them, she said.

Most of the lawmakers' scornful looks and grimaces were reserved Tuesday for Becker and the court system.

In an example of we-judge-the-laws, so-do-we-need-to-follow-them, Becker attempted to explain why a 1995 law requiring the courts to start tracking and explaining debt collections hasn't been enforced. "That's correct. They (the courts) haven't obeyed the law," said Stephens. Becker will appear again before the Executive Appropriations Committee to show the results of his new debt-tracking system.

"Not just in Utah," but across the nation there has been an ongoing philosophical disagreement over how courts collect fees and fines, said Becker. Judges believe they should judge and impose fines and prison sentences, not collect the bad debts. That work is better done by the executive branch.

But as any parent of a teenager knows, it's easy to tell a misbehaving kid to go to his room and not play the stereo. It's something else to make him do it.

Becker said a new agreement with Anderson's office combines the best of both worlds. The courts will mete out financial punishment and track debt owed up to six months - keeping the power of issuing a warrant to grab the non-payer and throw him in jail if need be. After six months, the debt will be turned over to Anderson's office, which uses outside, private collection firms to collect bad debts.

Emma Chacon, director of Human Services' Office of Recovery Services, said state agencies have the tools to collect bad debt from deadbeat dads and moms - her office's major job. It's just a question of getting all the tools working together. Her office has $204 million in outstanding child-support payments, much of that more than a year in arrears.

The programs of tracking those responsible for that debt are merged - giving tax refunds to child support instead of back to deadbeat dads, going to court to revoke trade and professional licenses of deadbeats, tracking new hires' Social Security numbers to quickly get wage garnishments and so on, she said.