Child support bill hits snag

Governor opposes leaving enforcement in private hands

February 15, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to end an experiment that has put Baltimore's child support enforcement in private hands for almost six years, contending that state employees have shown they can do a better job.

State Human Resources Secretary Emelda Johnson announced the decision yesterday at a Senate hearing on a bill that would extend the privatization experiment for three more years. She cited a recent study showing that state workers in four counties that adopted new management practices outperformed the company that runs Baltimore's system.

The governor's decision is a serious setback for Maximus Inc., the Virginia company that has run the child support program in Baltimore and Queen Anne's County since November 1999. The Baltimore child support office is the largest in the country to put its operations into private hands, and the loss of the contract sends a signal with national implications.

Opposition by the governor indicates that he could veto the bill if it does pass, though he has made no explicit threat. A post-session veto could not be overridden.

Maximus, which has been waging a fierce lobbying campaign in both the administration and the legislature, left no doubt it would continue fighting for the bill.

Bruce C. Bereano, the company's lobbyist, charged that Johnson reversed her previous support for continuing privatization under pressure from the governor.

"Respectfully, this is because of this administration's response to labor, politically," Bereano told the Senate Finance Committee. He noted that one of the leading opponents is the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees - a Glendening ally.

Johnson said she withdrew her support for a continuation of the privatization project after last week's release of a study by the Johns Hopkins University and Towson University's RESI concluded that public employees in counties where the local offices adopted new management practices and incentives did better than Maximus.

Johnson, noting that the privatization project is in its sixth year - three under Lockheed IMS and more than two with Maximus, said it was time the state made a decision on the best way to collect child support and that the data supported the state workers.

"We have done this pilot for six years, and if we extend it again, it will be a pilot for nine or 10 years, which is laughable," she said.

When it set up the pilot program in 1995 - a time when the privatization of government services was gaining acceptance as a way to combat inefficiency - the General Assembly crafted a compromise between corporate and labor demands.

In two jurisdictions, including Baltimore, the work would be contracted out to private business - though with job guarantees for the state employees.

In three counties - a fourth was added later - public employees would do the work using innovative methods to improve morale and performance. Among the strategies was to pay bonuses to the entire staff when a local agency met its goals. At the end of the experiment, the state would decide which strategy worked best.

A Johns Hopkins University-RESI study shows that public employees in the demonstration counties - Montgomery, Howard, Washington and Calvert counties - outperformed traditional government agencies and Maximus on several measures. They included securing court orders, proving paternity and making collections.

Bereano argued that it was "ludicrous" to compare any of the demonstration counties with Baltimore because of the city's unique demographics.

Anirban Basu, director of RESI, called the results "unequivocal." He noted that the study compared rates of growth as well as totals.

"Whether you're Baltimore or Montgomery County, you always want to see improvement," he said.

The hearing presented two vastly contrasting views of Maximus' performance from the same Baltimore legislative district.

Del. Talmadge Branch, sponsor of the House bill, said that with Maximus, his constituents are no longer complaining that they aren't getting their checks.

"The issue is about children, It's about mothers. It's about people receiving money on time," the 45th District Democrat said.

Sen. Nathaniel J. MacFadden, however, said he's been getting plenty of complaints about Maximus. "It is getting worse," the Democrat said.

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