WASHINGTON — Seeking to dig California out of a $4-billion hole, a House panel Tuesday approved relaxing the 1996 welfare reform bill's provisions requiring the states to centralize their systems for tracking child support payments by absent parents.
The new measure, which was adopted without dissent by the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources, is expected to glide through the House and Senate with little resistance.
Subcommittee Chairman Clay Shaw (R-Fla.) said negotiations over the measure had reached a "high water mark for bipartisan cooperation" within the subcommittee. But he acknowledged that the compromise fully satisfied neither children's advocates, who tried to preserve the 1996 provisions, nor the states, which sought further relief from federal requirements and penalties.
"At this point, both sides seem to be mad at us--so we probably have it just about right," Shaw said.
Under the 1996 welfare reform law, California faces a $4-billion fine this year for failing to centralize the county computer systems that track child support payments by absent parents.
The revisions adopted by Shaw's subcommittee would leave the state facing penalties of about $12 million this year and $24 million in 1999.
The law would also relax the definition of a centralized computer tracking system. California officials told legislators that they could probably comply with the new definition within 30 months, allowing the state to dodge all or most of the $48-million penalty that it would have to pay in 2000.
California's 57 county district attorneys, however, have expressed little optimism about converting to the "locally linked" system envisioned by the House measure. The county officials, who oversee child support enforcement, have long held out against state and federal efforts to impose standardization.
Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento) said Tuesday that he strongly supported the effort to spare California a devastating financial penalty. But he warned state and county officials not to come to Congress for another bailout in three years if they fail to draw their systems together to the federal government's satisfaction.
"If there's a will, they can do it," Matsui said. "But if they think after three years that they'll get relief. . . ." Noting that only 14% of single-parent families receive the child support they are owed, Matsui said: "This has got to be dealt with."
The provisions adopted by the House subcommittee may be in for some minor changes when they progress to a drafting session of the full House Ways and Means Committee this month.
In the Senate, where the measure is to be taken up in coming weeks, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is expected to lead a drive to relax penalties even further. That will probably run into strong opposition from children's advocates, who argue that relaxing federal standards further will leave more children without parental support.
At the same time, children's advocates actively promoted the measure approved Tuesday by the subcommittee.
As drafted by the House subcommittee, the provision would allow California to receive federal reimbursement for building a system of child support enforcement that is not strictly centralized. The welfare law now dictates that states should lose federal assistance for child support enforcement if every county or region does not adopt identical hardware and software systems to track the whereabouts and employment status of absent parents who owe child support.
The newly drafted bill would encourage states such as California, which allows its counties to operate a number of dissimilar systems, to narrow the number of operating systems to just a few. And it would require states to maintain most of their significant data on absent parents in a common computer language in a single "warehouse."