Let’s have a chat about what’s in that child support bill — the one the House Judiciary and Rules committee tabled right before the Legislature adjourned last week.
Yes, it’s complicated. We know you have questions, and we do too.
What’s the issue?: This legislation clarifies the process through which states and countries determine jurisdiction over child support cases — basically, which court makes the decision.
What’s not in the bill: Anything to do with child custody issues. This is solely about child support, aka the cash and medical care.
What’s at stake? Basically, Idaho’s ability to collect and process child support.
The federal government told every state, as well as Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and every US territory, that they must pass amendments to the Uniform Interstate Family Security Act by the end of their respective legislative sessions, or risk losing federal funds for their child support enforcement programs, as well as access to federal information portals that allow states to track parents who owe child support.
Why is it needed?: The uniform language makes sure everyone is on the same page.
This not only allows other states and countries to collect child support from noncustodial parents who live in Idaho, it allows Idaho to work with other states and countries to collect child support for Idaho children.
When would this clarification come into play?: When parents move around. If the mother has custody of a child, and the father moves to Texas, the mother would file for child support in Idaho, and the courts in Texas and Idaho would work together to enforce that child support order. That might be as simple as processing the payments if the father complies with the order, or could involve wage garnishment if he’s noncompliant.
It can get pretty messy, though. Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, gave me this example: Let’s say an Australian exchange student comes to Boise State, gets pregnant, and moves back to Australia. The hypothetical father of this hypothetical child never left Idaho. She can’t file a child support claim against the father in Australia, as the father never left Idaho and therefore never subjected himself to Australia’s laws. The mother would have to file child support in Idaho, as that’s where this whole baby-making business originally went down.
If the father were to visit the mother in Australia, that’s a different story. He might get served with a child support order while there. He could appeal that decision in Australia. Once you leave Idaho, Rice said, you voluntarily subject yourself to that jurisdiction and their laws.
Go ahead and replace “Australia” with any state, and you get the idea of how this works. In order for a state or country to have a say in the child support order, the person getting served would have had to at least visited that jurisdiction.
It gets particularly complicated when parents move around. If a mother and father had the child in Idaho, then split up, and the mother moved to Arizona and the father moved to Montana…. you get the idea of why clarity is necessary.
What happens with a child support order involving a country that isn’t involved in the treaty? The parent with custody is likely out of luck. So let’s say an Idaho woman gets pregnant from a Sudanese man who was visiting Boise. She could file for child support in Idaho, but it’s almost certain she wouldn’t receive child support if he went to Sudan, never came back and didn’t want to pay.
Idaho Reports chatted with Sen. Grant Burgoyne, who worked in the child enforcement office in the 70s, before the states had uniform child support enforcement. Burgoyne said it was much more difficult — sometimes impossible — to collect child support payments from parents who left the area. That, he said, is the system Idaho risks reverting to.
Where did the opposition come from? You’ve heard about the Sharia law comments. While that dominated the committee discussion and public testimony, lawmakers on the committee expressed concern after the vote about due process, whether Idaho citizens would be able to appeal decisions, privacy concerns regarding personal information in the portal, and whether Idaho courts could review those orders before enforcing them.
“Courts in Idaho are required to accept foreign orders with only a few exceptions,” wrote Rep. Lynn Luker, a Boise attorney who voted to table the legislation in the House Judiciary and Rules Committee. “Those exceptions include minimal requirements for notice and hearing; however, those rights are undefined and vary drastically from country to country.”
Rep. Ron Nate said in an op-ed that he was dissatisfied with answers to questions on data security in the federal information portal and on the terms of the treaty itself. “The bill was thoroughly vetted. The committee heard over three hours of testimony and questions. Many of the answers were unsatisfactory and incomplete,” Nate wrote. “Right-minded committee members were resistant to being bullied into accepting a bill without compromise, without proper protections, and without good, clear answers on what Idaho would become subject to, so it tabled the bill.”
Why did the initial media coverage focus so much on Sharia law? The motion to table the bill during Friday’s committee meeting didn’t allow for debate, meaning most of those concerns were never aired until after the vote.
Are those concerns valid? According to Sen. Rice, no. He said the new language simply clarifies the practices that Idaho uses now to collect and enforce child support with other jurisdictions. If anything, the amendments would make child support cases that span multiple jurisdictions even easier, and give more protections to states.
In this video excerpt, Rice explains more about jurisdictional issues that pop up in child support cases.
What was the timeline? In 2007, the Hague Convention on the International Recovery of Child Support and Other Forms of Family Maintenance updated an international child support agreement. The United States Uniform Law Commission (more on that later this week) approved the language in 2008. It passed both the House and Senate in 2014 (no word yet on the reason for the 6-year lag) and was signed by the president on Sept. 29, 2014. The federal government notified state legislatures that they had to adopt the language in their respective state codes in 2015.
In Idaho, the legislation was introduced in the Senate on Feb. 12, but wasn’t passed by the Senate as a whole until March 20 — relatively late in the session. It didn’t have a public hearing in the House Judiciary and Rules Committee until April 9, the second to last day of the session, and was tabled late in the afternoon on April 10, hours before the Legislature adjourned.
How much money are we talking about? More than $16 million in child support enforcement money, which makes up two-thirds of the state’s child support program budget, as well as the potential of losing about $30 million in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grants, which is tied to Idaho’s child support compliance. That’s not the only money at stake, though. The Department of Health and Welfare’s child support office processes about $200 million in child support payments annually. That’s money that goes directly to families and supports children.
So let’s expand on the implications of that. Without child support payments, a lot of single moms and dads will struggle to take care of their children, said Director Richard Armstrong of the Department of Health and Welfare. That could lead to more of those families being dependent on government aid. That means even more cost to the state — cost that we can’t fully predict right now, Armstrong said.
Armstrong had strong words about the impacts and the effects on his department in this Idaho Reports interview excerpt. “All of this rhetoric and anxiety doesn’t put groceries on the table,” Armstrong said. “It’s absolutely wrong for the legislature to get in the middle of the household budget when it’s their money, when it’s the household’s money, not the legislature’s money.” (You can see more of his interview on this week’s Idaho Reports, which airs 8 pm MST/7 pm PST, Friday on Idaho Public Television.)
Can’t we find the money for the program elsewhere? Hypothetically, yes. That’s what Rep. Ron Nate (who voted to table the bill) argued in an op-ed published by the Idaho Freedom Foundation. “Fortunately, Idaho’s revenue is $88 million dollars ahead this year — we can afford noncompliance,” Nate wrote.
So what’s the issue? It’s not just about the money. To enforce child support orders, both in-state and elsewhere, Idaho and the other states use a federal information portal. Idaho also uses federal tools to process the payments.
Can’t Idaho enforce child support without the federal government? Realistically speaking, no.
Let’s set aside the international cases for a second — those make up a fraction of one percent of Idaho’s 155,000 child support cases. Idaho would still have to make enforcement agreements with each state individually, said Armstrong. Frankly, those states have no incentive to deviate from the program they’re using now — i.e., that federal portal and processing system. The state uses that database and portal for in-state cases as well. So to rebuild that system and make individual agreements with every jurisdiction from which Idaho collects child support is time- and cost-prohibitive.
Will the federal government actually follow through with its threat? That’s a good question — and it’s one a lot of skeptics are asking, including Rep. Ryan Kerby, who voted to table the legislation. Kerby told the Idaho Press Tribune he didn’t think the federal government would actually follow through and make Idaho kids suffer.
But look at the letter Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter received from the Office of Child Support Enforcement. Commissioner Vicki Turetsky makes it pretty clear she’s not messing around.
This passed through Congress, so where is Idaho’s Congressional delegation? The legislation passed the House on a voice vote, which isn’t recorded. Congressman Mike Simpson supported the amendments, according to his spokeswoman Nikki Wallace. Dan Popkey, spokesman for Congressman Raul Labrador, told Idaho Reports “At the time there were no objections raised to the bill,” but had no comment on where Labrador stood on the issue. The amendments passed the Senate through unanimous consent; Neither Sen. Mike Crapo nor Sen. Jim Risch objected.
“This bill passed with unanimous support in the Senate and without any objection in the House because it is imperative that we protect children from sex trafficking and ensure dead beat dads have no safe haven,” said Congressman Mike Simpson in a statement. “I unequivocally stand by my support for the bill and with those in Idaho who believe the Legislature needs to fix this issue.”
Will it affect other states if Idaho doesn’t pass these amendments? At very least, it means Idaho could became a haven for deadbeat parents, said Office of Child Support director Kandace Yearsley. That means if a parent in Wyoming is trying to collect child support from a parent in Idaho, there’s no guarantee Idaho would be able to deliver.
As far as the system as a whole, Idaho Reports is looking into whether Idaho’s failure to pass the amendments will invalidate the treaty. “The failure of just one state to pass (the amendments) will have a negative impact on every state (child support) program in the country and the families they serve,” Turetsky wrote.
What’s next?: Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has a few options. He could ignore the issue and see if the federal government will follow through on the threat. (At his post-session press conference on April 16, Otter said that option is off the table.)
He could also work on a waiver — a move that would give the Legislature and state more time to consider the amendments, but would still risk losing access to the funding and portal.
Finally, he could call a special session of the Legislature so they can pass the amendments. That would have to happen by mid-June, according to Turetsky. Otherwise, the federal funding goes away starting July 1.
And remember, even if Otter calls the special session, there is no guarantee lawmakers will pass the bill. At the April 16 post-session press conference with Otter, House Speaker Scott Bedke said he’s engaged with members of his caucus on the issue all week. Otter said his office has discussed the issue with lawmakers, too. “We’ve engaged a lot of the misgivings and misunderstandings and issues surrounding that bill that quite frankly were not factual,” he said.
At the end-of-session press conference, Otter said he wasn’t yet prepared to say what he’ll do.
We’ll continue to follow this issue. Stay tuned.