In the current paper version of Unfair Park, we detail the lengthy battle between Robert O'Donnell and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who extinguished O'Donnell's child support collection business after several courtroom victories. Despite the efforts of Abbott and his office to find O'Donnell's company non-compliant with federal law, several big-name politicos supported O'Donnell (the son of former Dallas County Judge Bob O'Donnell), including Governor Rick Perry.
Perry's May 2006 letter to former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael Leavitt stressed that finding O'Donnell's practices in violation of federal law, which had been previously determined by Leavitt's own agency to be a matter best left in the hands of the state, had "the effect of decreasing competition and potentially decreases the likelihood that the custodial parent will receive their child support payment."
This placed Perry in a group of powerful folks we reached out to for comment on the story, and, to his credit, he was one of very few willing to do so. However, what we got back didn't make the cut as the best he could muster was having his deputy press secretary, Katherine Cesinger, answer a few questions via e-mail. Her response to our inquiry about whether the Office of the Attorney General does a better job of collecting child support than other states -- and, of course, why or why not -- struck us as particularly terse.
"The Attorney General's State Disbursement Unit is effectively and sufficiently collecting child support in the state," she wrote.
That's the answer we got back eight days after submitting three questions (one of which she didn't have an answer to). So why such a generic statement, and why wouldn't Perry seize the opportunity to lavish praise on fellow Republican Greg Abbott? Heck, why wouldn't Perry want to tout something that Texas does well?
Maybe it's because he just doesn't care about anything right now other than winning his third four-year term in office. Or perhaps he knows the truth. Like most states, Texas does a terrible job of collecting child support.
According to preliminarily reports provided by the Office of Child Support Enforcement at U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Texas collected 21.7 percent of the total child support due including arrearages (past-due payments) in fiscal year 2008, placing it 28th -- just ahead of Mississippi and behind Delaware (Pennsylvania is No. 1 at 49.1 percent).
Remove the arrearages from the equation (which seems unfair as it is the OAG's job to collect all support), and Texas collected 64.5 percent in FY08 -- good for 19th (again, Pennsylvania takes the top spot with 78.9 percent). Why remove the arrearages? Because when the OAG is asked to provide a percentage of child support collected, that's what it does. Arrearages are "always a big number," as OAG spokesman Jerry Strickland explains.
It's the percentages (63.8 percent in FY09 and 64.15 percent in FY08, according to the OAG) that you don't hear much about -- the dollar numbers ($2.78 billion in '09 and $2.63 billion in '08) are the headline grabbers.
But, consider this: Of that '09 money, 81.3 percent of it came from wage garnishment, meaning all the OAG has to do is sit back and collect a check. That leaves around $520 million not collected by wage garnishment compared to the $274 million spent by the OAG's child support division last year, which includes $88 million in state dough and $180 million from the feds.
Somehow O'Donnell's business, Guardian Ad Litem, managed to post collection rates above 80 percent (including arrearages) without using any taxpayers' money by charging a $10 monthly fee to the participants and collecting attorney's fees from noncustodial parents. O'Donnell, who's also a Republican, says he can't understand why such a successful conservative program was quashed.
"This is not the way government's supposed to work, particularly Republicans. For that whole decade (the 2000s), it was all about public-private partnerships, user-fee based," he says. "Mom was out of the collection loop and not the bad guy. The court was actually enforcing its own order, which it's constitutionally obligated to do. It was just this perfect blend."
Once the dust settles after the March 2 primary elections, expect Abbott's opponent, Democrat Barbara Ann Radnofsky, to reveal the OAG's mediocre statistics related to child support collection -- especially with its $320 million budget this year -- and perhaps expose Abbott's efforts in the O'Donnell saga as decidedly un-Republican. Till then, here's a statement she gave us at our request after reading our story.
"What's missing in the Attorney General's denials is any concern for the children of Texas. The AG's interest clearly lies with protecting his own political future and ambitions."