Legislators push to revise child support laws

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, asks questions during a debate on the Senate floor this week. She is sponsoring legislation this year that would change New Mexico’s child support laws, with the goal of getting more money to children. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico is racing to update its child support laws to avoid the loss of $148 million in federal funding.

Bipartisan legislation now advancing through the Roundhouse would revise how child support is calculated, limit how many years of overdue payments a parent would owe and make a host of other changes intended to bring New Mexico into compliance with federal law.

Two similar bills are under consideration in the House – one of which has already cleared the Senate, putting it in strong position to win full approval in time to reach the governor’s desk.

In addition to avoiding the loss of federal funds, supporters say, the legislation is designed to get more money to kids and their custodial parents.

“The chance to bring in more money for kids – so they can be kids – is what’s fundamentally at the heart of the bill,” Human Services Deputy Secretary Kari Armijo said in an interview Thursday.

But passage is also critical, supporters say, to maintain about $123 million in annual federal grant funding for a cash-assistance program that helps low-income families with children, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

On top of that, the state could lose $25 million in federal matching funds for child support programs.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly warned New Mexico about the possibility of losing federal funds. A letter issued in November said the state’s TANF and child support funding is “at risk if legislative and policy changes are not made during the state’s 2021 legislative session.”

The 60-day legislative session now underway is set to end at noon March 20, giving lawmakers just over two weeks to reach agreement on a bill and send it to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Sen. Gay Kernan, a Hobbs Republican and sponsor of one of the bills, said the proposal makes broad changes intended to improve the child support system, including revisions intended to help parents who fall behind on payments come back into compliance.

Non-custodial parents can now rack up 12 years in retroactive arrears, a time frame Kernan said is unrealistic and results in even less money reaching the child. The legislation would narrow the past-due payments to three years in most circumstances.

“Moving to that, you have a better chance of actually getting money to the child,” Kernan said in an interview Thursday.

Jeremy Toulouse, New Mexico’s child support director, said debt older than three years usually becomes uncollectable and can become a barrier to the parent paying back a more-manageable amount. It can also lead to tension between the parents and have other unintended consequences.

“It’s counter-productive,” Toulouse said. The proposed legislation “ensures a child support order is based on ability to pay.”

The bill would make changes to how child support is calculated. Generally, lower-income parents would face more-affordable payments under the new guidelines – part of a strategy to increase voluntary compliance – though higher-income parents might pay more.

Taken together, the changes in the bill are projected to result in an extra $284 in annual collections per child, or almost $31 million statewide.

Armijo said the money will be a benefit to kids, of course, but the increased payments are expected also to result in stronger relationships between the non-custodial parent and his or her children.

“National studies show that when the non-custodial parent is able to make payments on their current order,” Armijo said, “they’re more likely to have a relationship with their child.”

One of the child support proposals, Senate Bill 140, won Senate approval earlier this week on a 40-0 vote. It’s now in the House, where it will have to clear one committee before reaching the full chamber for consideration.

A similar proposal, House Bill 190, is also pending in the House, though it hasn’t advanced as quickly.

Rep. Daymon Ely, a Corrales Democrat and sponsor of the House version, said the legislation strikes a good balance in updating the law while also leaving judges some discretion in setting child support orders.

“We’re going to lose a lot of federal money if we don’t do this,” Ely said, “and the idea is to set up things that will make the process more effective in terms of actually helping kids.”

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