Maryland legislators, impatient with the state's difficulties in collecting child support payments, want a private company to take over some of the work.
A controversial proposal to privatize all child support collection efforts in Baltimore and one county, to be designated later, already has passed the House of Delegates. It will be heard by a Senate committee Wednesday, just five days before the assembly is to adjourn.
Top officials at the state Department of Human Resources are worried that the proposal is too broad and moving too fast. And state employee unions are howling about the potentially harmful effect it could have on the jobs, salaries and pension benefits of hundreds of state workers.
Opponents claim the sudden move to turn over child support collection efforts to a private company is being driven in part by former Senate aide John R. Stierhoff, now a lobbyist for Lockheed Martin Corp.
The defense industry giant has diversified in recent years and now has a subsidiary that handles child support collections in other states. It is interested in doing the same thing here.
House Bill 1177, which passed the House last week, 92-40, would direct Human Resources Secretary Alvin C. Collins to turn over to a private contractor "all aspects of child support enforcement functions of the department" in Baltimore and in one county that he would select. The pilot project could not begin until July 1996.
The state collects and disburses child support payments for people whose court orders are referred to the state or who ask for help in enforcing such orders. But the contractor's responsibilities would go well beyond just collecting and disbursing the payments.
The firm also would have to locate absent parents, establish the paternity of children who need child support and go to court on behalf of parents to obtain support orders or to modify existing ones.
The legislation also would direct Mr. Collins to designate another county to serve as competition for the two privatized jurisdictions for comparison. The secretary would be permitted to offer state employees there private-sector style incentives in an effort to make the competition more even.
The theory behind the proposed legislation is that too many parents -- especially fathers -- abdicate their responsibility for their children, often forcing the other parent to turn to government welfare programs for financial support. If more money was collected for child support, the state would pay less to welfare recipients, backers of the bill say.
"There is an enhanced view that we should have individual responsibility by parents, generally the father -- the 'deadbeat dads.' But that is not happening," said Del. Donald C. Fry, the Harford County Democrat who sponsored the bill.
The move toward privatization of child support collections, while consistent with the national trend to "reinvent government," would not be the first time the state has turned to the private sector for help.
In recent years, the state has hired private contractors to run Maryland's juvenile delinquent detention center in Baltimore County and has turned the University of Maryland Medical System into a private, nonprofit corporation.
Employee unions objected to those privatization efforts, just as they are now lobbying hard against the child support legislation.
It is the child support collection rate, coupled with concerns about the cost of welfare programs, that has caught lawmakers' attention.
Last year, the state was collecting payments from only a third of its 255,000 cases statewide. In Baltimore, the collection rate was just 14 percent, according to state statistics.
Secretary Collins said his department is not opposed to experimenting with hiring an outside firm to try to improve collections. But he expressed concern that the experiment would begin in Baltimore, which, with 138,000 cases, has about half the state's caseload.
Human Resources officials say Baltimore is one of the most difficult jurisdictions in which to collect the payments because so many of the city's single parents are poor and their partners often are as well.
Secretary Collins said the department has not had a chance to review how well private collection efforts have worked in other states. "It's a question of how soon and where you implement the pilot," he said. "We haven't even seen a feasibility study."
The legislation would require a contractor to offer state employees who now do the work a job for at least two years at "terms deemed by the secretary to be fair and equitable" and at a "benefit level comparable to the contractor's other similarly situated employees."