February 11, 2021

Bill to increase child support collections, avert loss of federal funds sails through committee

Legislation that would bring New Mexico’s child support laws into compliance with federal rules — and avert the loss of $147.5 million in funding — sailed through the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 140, sponsored by Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, also is expected to increase child support collections because it would cut the retroactive arrears time frame, also referred to as the look-back period, from 12 years to three years.

“This change is not federally required but a common best practice for top performing states,” Kernan told the committee.

Kari Armijo, deputy Cabinet secretary of the Human Services Department, said the state projects child support collections will increase by $420.33 a year for each case.

“That represents a 30.9 percent overall increase per year, or $284 per child,” she said. “Given the very low-income families that rely on our support, that extra money will mean a lot to New Mexico families.”

A long retroactive arrears period results in fewer collections “because the debt is unaffordable for noncustodial parents to get caught up,” Armijo added.

In addition, she said, revisions in the bill would improve voluntary compliance with child support orders and allow the department “to focus on providing employment opportunities and job security for noncustodial parents to increase their accountability.”

Armijo said changes to the state’s child support laws include requiring consideration of a noncustodial parent’s ability to pay, which is one of the reasons $122.6 million in funding for the Temporary Assistance for Low-Income Families program, or TANF, is in jeopardy.

“This provision of federal rule is designed to ensure affordability in child support orders,” she said.

In addition to the TANF funding, the Human Services Department said $24.9 million in child support administrative and program funding also is at risk if the state fails to comply with federal law.

The bill also would provide that the health care needs of a child are a basis to modify a child support order.

“This, too, is a federal requirement,” Armijo said. “It is designed to assure that we are always establishing medical support for children, including using medical support as grounds alone for the opening of a child support order.”

State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, called the measure “a really excellent bill.”

“I particularly like that they’re not going back [12] years anymore, that it’s going back three years, because … it caused parents to disappear from the children’s lives, and that is not a good result,” she said.

Armijo echoed the sentiment. While modernizing the state’s child support statute will result in more money to New Mexico children by holding noncustodial parents accountable, she said there are other benefits to the revisions. Studies show noncustodial parents who pay child support “and are voluntarily compliant are more likely to have relationships with their children,” she said.

State Rep. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, is sponsoring a duplicate measure, House Bill 190.

“We want non-custodial parents to be involved in their children’s lives, and we want them to be able to support their children through gainful employment,” Ely said in a statement. “This legislation removes more punitive barriers that prevent non-custodial parents from supporting their children.”