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Child-support reform passes Senate hurdle
The Minnesota Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bill that would overhaul the state's child support guidelines for the first time in two decades. The guidelines affect about 300,000 children in the state. The House could pass a similar measure this week. And although it contains some differences from the Senate version, the sponsors of the two bills say they think they can find common ground before the Legislature adjourns next week.

St. Paul, Minn. — Since the 1980s, Minnesota's child support guidelines have directed judges to take into account only the income of the parent who doesn't have custody - usually the father - when determining child support. That may soon change. Bills in both the House and Senate would base payments on the combined income of both parents.

The sponsor of the House bill Rep. Steve Smith, R-Mound, says the current guidelines are outdated.

"Without being sexist, that means dad had a percent of his income assessed for child support. Well, that was at a time that was different. We now in Minnesota have the highest percentage of women that work outside the home; closing in on 80 percent," according to Smith.

Smith says he's not trying to give fathers a break on paying child support, but he wants to make the system more fair. Under his bill and the Senate version, child support payments would probably go down for parents who have one child, and would likely go up for parents with two or more children.

Smith's bill has passed the House twice in the last couple of years, but the Senate has rejected changes. Now the Senate has voted 60-to-2 for a bill that would revamp the system.

The bill's sponsor, Republican Tom Neuville of Northfield, says the vote is a major milestone.

"I'll tell you what: three months ago, the conflict that I was getting from mothers' groups, fathers' groups, family lawyers, judges, I even had some doubts myself whether I could find a middle ground people could agree on, but I think there is a recognition that there's a little bit of unfairness in the system," he said.

While Neuville and Smith agree on taking both parents' incomes into account, their bills have significant differences. Neuville wants to reduce payments for non-custodial parents who spend time with their kids. His bill would also reduce payments if non-custodial parents have more children.

Smith's bill calls for a review of child support six months after a divorce. It also would make joint custody the default rule of law if divorcing parents can't agree on custody.

Still, the two are optimistic their bills can be resolved before Monday's adjournment deadline, much to the dismay of parents fighting the changes.

Jen Peterson, a founder of the Twin Cities chapter of ACES, the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support, says she fears that overhauling the system will reduce payments to single parents who are already struggling.

"More families are going to be forced into poverty, or maintained at poverty at the taxpayers' expense ... More families will be getting less child support, and if it's not adequate support, then they fall back on the safety net of welfare, food stamps, more people trying to get medical assistance and daycare assistance," she said.

Peterson also believes that the Neuville and Smith bills will result in more court battles. Just the opposite, say Neuville and Smith. They say if the system is more fair, and is perceived to be more fair by both parents, there will be fewer custody and child support cases in the courts.