More than 80 custodial and non-custodial parents, many taking time off from work to tell lawmakers how they feel about proposed child support guidelines, left the Judicial Interim Committee Wednesday disappointed and frustrated.
Debate on the guidelines by legislators was delayed an hour because of other agenda items, leaving no time for public comment on the revised child support guidelines.Consequently, lawmakers are asking the State Judicial Council to postpone considering the adoption of revised child support guidelines until they can hear testimony from divorced parents on the controversial issue. Currently, the Judicial Council meeting remains scheduled for June 27 to adopt or reject the guidelines.
While there wasn't time for public debate, the lawmakers did hear a presentation by Judge Judith M. Billings on the topic that has created intense dispute since the first public hearing a year ago.
Billings, chairman of the child support task force and member of the Utah Court of Appeals, presented lawmakers with the reasons behind the proposed guidelines.
"Judges asked for guidelines because two couples with the exact same economic situations could be awarded very different child support orders - depending on the judge. That's unfair, and it erodes public confidence in the courts," she said.
The public, through testimony in public hearings last year, demanded more consistency and predictability in child support awards.
Statistics showed that children of divorce were receiving support payments below the poverty level. Judges did not have access to what it actually costs to rear a child.
The 17-member task force studied guidelines used by 42 other states, said Billings. To gain input from the public, questionnaires were sent out, public hearings were held throughout the state, and 300 letters were carefully reviewed, she said.
"The public hearings were not simply dog and pony shows. Significant changes resulted," the judge said.
The revised guidelines reflect the following compromises:
-Guidelines will not apply automatically to parents who have already divorced. The new standards may be considered as part of the totality of evidence if a divorced parent seeks an increase of payment. The guidelines are not presumptive to existing orders.
-If a custodial parent of a first marriage wants to have a child support order increased, the judge should take into account all children, natural and adopted, of first and second families.
-If the child of a couple sharing custody spends at least 35 percent of overnight visits in a second home, then the new guidelines won't apply.
-The amounts of child support payments were lowered, making Utah sixth lowest among 42 states that have guidelines.
Wednesday afternoon, a similiar presentation of the revised guidelines was made to the Social Services Interim Committee and received mixed response.
The director of the Office of Recovery Services said his office supports the guidelines, with reservations.
"We do think guidelines are the way to go," John Abbott, ORS director, said, "and though there are problems with the guidelines, we support them conditionally and hope some changes are made."
The ORS collects child support payments and had written the only set of child support guidelines in Utah prior to the task force. The ORS policy was based on ability to pay, a different concept from the proposal, which is based on economic need, according to Abbott.
Abbott criticized basing support on gross income rather than the net income of the ORS guideline, and said that might have a negative impact. Finally, regardless of the judge's order, Abbott said his office had restrictions on what it can collect. "We can collect only 50 percent of disposable income, regardless of how much a guideline or order says they should pay.
Billings said the cap on child support is 50 percent.
Rep. Craig Moody, R-Salt Lake, sent a word of caution to the judiciary: "You are binding another branch of the government. And you are sending mixed messages. You've told us you prefer not to have mandatory sentencing, you want the judge to have discretion. Now you say you want guidelines in this area . . . . We are getting contradictory signals."
There was some disagreement among lawmakers. "All we could do probably is muck it up a little more and make it more confusing," Rep. JoAnn Milner, D-Salt Lake City, while Sen. Frances Farley, D-Salt Lake, pointed out that guidelines are just that - guidelines - "for the judge to use or not to use."