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California and the West

Child Support Changes Ratified

Capitol: Measures would transfer jurisdiction from D.A.s to new state agency. Final approval will be delayed to allow fine-tuning by Davis.

July 16, 1999|NICHOLAS RICCARDI and GREG KRIKORIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In crucial back-to-back votes, both houses of the Legislature passed bills Thursday to restructure the state's troubled child support system--setting the stage for the landmark reforms to be on the governor's desk by summer's end.

The state Senate and Assembly in May had adopted earlier versions of the legislation to strip the state's 58 district attorneys of responsibility for collecting support for 3 million children.

Under the bills passed Thursday, the responsibility would go to a new state department with operations in each county.

District attorneys mounted a months-long lobbying blitz to persuade legislators to reject the bills when they returned to the floor Thursday with changes to make the measures complementary.

"To listen to the debate about this bill you would think this is about district attorneys' jobs and protecting their ability to access federal incentive dollars," said Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica), author of one of the bills. The legislation, she added, is not about punishing prosecutors but improving the system.

Other lawmakers said the legislation will do little to improve California's dismal record in collecting child support.

"We're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco), a longtime advocate of reform. She argued Thursday that most delinquent child support is uncollectable because the debtor parents are too poor to fulfill their obligation.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco) said district attorneys have repeatedly lobbied against the smallest reforms of a program they have botched for years.

"The D.A.s fought every bill that's been introduced in the past three years," said Burton, coauthor of the Senate bill with state Sen. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank).

The Assembly approved by a 42-32 margin Thursday a bill that had originated in the Senate. The Senate, in turn, approved the Assembly bill 22 to 9.

Kuehl said she believes that Gov. Gray Davis will support the legislation. The Legislature will delay final approval of the bills until it returns from summer recess in August, Kuehl said, to provide Davis a chance to fine-tune the proposals.

The governor's office did not comment Thursday.

Statewide reforms were proposed after a series in The Times revealed that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office had the worst record in California, failing to collect child support in nine of 10 cases.

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