Opinion: COLA for Md. Child Support Orders?

Maryland State House. Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

A legislative proposal on child support guidelines, House Bill 946, introduced by Delegates Kathleen M. Dumais (D-Montgomery), and Del. Michael E. Malone (R-Anne Arundel), is scheduled to be heard before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday at 1 p.m. A companion bill, Senate Bill 847, has been introduced by Sen. Charles E. Sydnor III (D-Baltimore County) and will be heard March 4 at noon in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

In 1990, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law establishing guidelines in all child support cases. Beginning Jan. 1, 1993, and at least every four years after that date (the last review completed in 2016), the Child Support Administration of the Maryland Department of Human Resources must review the child support guidelines every four years to ensure that their application results in the determination of appropriate child support amounts. 45 CFR 302.56(e) and MD Family Law §12‐202(c)(1).

Historically, in compliance with federal law to avoid the loss of the federal funds, the DHR submitted to the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House the quadrennial review on Dec. 31 of the following years; 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016.

Unfortunately for divorced parents, the Maryland legislature had adapted adjustment to the Maryland Child Support Guidelines upward ONCE in 30 years. The guidelines were last revised pursuant to Chapters 262 and 263 of 2010.

Once in 30 years???

Back to March 2009: As a child support reformer since 2004, I testified on HB 1401 (Child Support Guidelines – Revision) before the House Judiciary Committee and told the delegates that the DHR had not yet arranged the public hearing on the 2008 quadrennial review. Chair Joseph Vallario Jr. (D-Prince George’s) decided to refer this bill to for interim study in October.

During the interim study hearing, DHR Secretary Brenda Donald announced to the committee that the DHR would set up a series of 12 regional forums to take public comments on proposed changes to child support guidelines. I attended all these public hearings.

In the legislative session of 2016, Del. Samuel I. (Sandy) Rosenberg (D-Baltimore City) introduced SB 97 (Child Support Guidelines – Revision), but House Judiciary went silent after the hearing. It noted that this bill was introduced three years, one month, and five days after the 2012 quadrennial review was submitted to the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House.

What happened to the 2019 bill?

Last March 6, I was called by Chairman Bobby Zirkin of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee to testify on SB 763 (Child Support Guidelines – Revision). This bill was introduced two years, one month, and five days after the completion of the 2016 quadrennial review.

Sitting in the back of me was Dumais, then the House majority leader, who engineered the House passage of her cross-filed bill, HB 732. I delivered a crying conclusion of my oral testimony to Zirkin’s committee: “I’m just worried about some of these guidelines. I feel that it’s a waste of time. It’s the same as three years ago. The next review is this January, so I guess I am against this… I feel like it’s a waste of time because we have nine months to go before the next review.”

Zirkin stalled SB 763, and also ran out the clock on Dumais’ other six child support bills passed by the House.

For the 2020 review, I have proposed that the DHR should receive the reports from contracted consultants by May 31; the DHR would arrange public forums across Maryland over the period of Sept. 14-Nov. 6; and then would submit the report to Senate president and speaker on Dec. 31.

Solution?

I have a suggestion for how to solve these ongoing problems for obligees (formerly the term of “custodians”), and obligors (formerly the term of “non-custodians”) — Cost-of-Living-Adjustments (COLA) — for a child support order.

A COLA for child support payments already exists in Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York.

On July 1, 1998, Iowa began to apply COLAs to child support orders in response to parental requests. The COLAs are applied only when requested by both the noncustodial and custodial parent. The parties can request the COLA if it has been at least two years since the support order was last reviewed.

Minnesota’s COLA adjusts child support court orders every two years and has done so since 1983.

New Jersey Child Support orders that are entered, modified, or enforced after Sept. 1, 1998, are subject to a COLA every two years.

Even if a parent doesn’t request a modification, every two years, the New York child support agency automatically reviews orders for COLA. If the cost of living increases by more than 10%, then child support payments will increase at the same rate.

My legislative mentor, retired Sen. Norm Stone Jr., supported this solution. He emailed, “I believe Maryland should follow New York’s lead in determining the cost of living increase every two years.” I recall that some years ago, a former state official told me, “Our goal was to build in the routine cost of living increases to the child support index.”

Why not, Maryland?

— HOWARD LEE GORRELL

The writer has been working to reform Maryland’s child support system since 2004.