EVENING DOME

The state Department of Children and Families is proposing limits on child support payments for wealthy parents.

State Journal archives

A committee advising the state on child custody rules urged the state last year not to reduce the amount of money wealthy Wisconsin parents pay in child support.

Despite the recommendation made in a 2015 report, Gov. Scott Walker’s administration is advancing a proposal to do just that.

The recommendations from the Child Support Guidelines Advisory Committee were provided to the Wisconsin State Journal on Tuesday by the Department of Children and Families prior to an agency hearing on the way the state handles child support and child placement — including a proposal to reduce the percentage of monthly income that is paid in child support by wealthy parents who make between $300,000 and $500,000 annually.

A judge would be responsible for determining what percentage of income would be paid in child support for parents who earn more than $500,000 annually under the proposal.

A DCF official referred the State Journal on Monday to the agency’s communications staff. Spokesman Joe Scialfa provided the committee report Tuesday, saying he was not in the office Monday and could not respond to questions.

The proposal is similar to legislation Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, introduced in 2013 that sought to ban judges from using income above $150,000 to calculate child-support payments — a controversial and ultimately unsuccessful bill that was co-written by a wealthy, divorced campaign donor.

The bill was at least the second time Kleefisch introduced legislation aimed at helping multimillionaire businessman and GOP donor Michael Eisenga reduce what he pays in child support: a minimum $15,000 a month for his three children.

It was withdrawn amid significant pushback in January 2014. Later that year, DCF convened a committee of lawmakers, county child support officials, the State Bar of Wisconsin, judges and other child support and child placement advocates to draft recommendations for changes.

Unlike Kleefisch’s bill, DCF proposes a sliding scale for wealthy parents that reduces the percentage of their income above $300,000 that is paid in child support as the income climbs to $500,000.

Scialfa said it’s a “mischaracterization” of the current proposed changes to compare them to Kleefisch’s bill, Assembly Bill 540.

“AB540 was withdrawn amidst legitimate concerns about capping the calculation of child support payments above $150,000 annual income,” said Scialfa. “However, debate over the bill did bring to light the fact that Wisconsin was significantly out of step with the majority of states regarding the calculation of child support payments for high-income earners. The committee acknowledged this fact during their deliberations.”

Committee ‘strongly recommends no change’

A DCF analysis of the recommended rules changes said the proposals were the result of the committee’s work. But in the report submitted to the DCF in September 2015, the committee says it “strongly recommends no change” to the way the state calculates child support for wealthy parents.

Further, the committee said that if the department wanted to change the high-income child payment formula, the committee suggested making the changes the department ultimately proposed.

The committee said in the report members were “very uncomfortable” recommending those proposals. The report also noted there is “considerable pressure in the Legislature from high-income payer advocates to amend Wisconsin’s high-income formula” in order to bring the state’s formula in line with other states, and that judges already have the discretion to place a portion of child support in a trust for college expenses.

“Economic data shows that as income rises above certain high-income levels, families spend a lower percentage of their gross income on their children, but the small number of these high-income families is statistically insignificant. There is, therefore, no data demonstrating a specific income level at which this occurs,” the report said. “The committee, therefore, was very uncomfortable with recommending any of the proposals, given that research does not exist to substantiate a change in the high-income formula.”

Scialfa did not respond to a question seeking information about who at DCF wanted to go ahead with the proposal to reduce child support from wealthy parents.

Necessary reform

or department overreach?

Scialfa said child custody is an issue that affects “hundreds of thousands of families in Wisconsin and the Department felt it deserved a thorough review by affected parties and policy makers and would benefit from broad public input.”

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, said Tuesday that he is open to reforming child support laws to avoid child support becoming “back door alimony.”

But Sen.-elect LaTonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee, testified at the hearing Tuesday that the proposal is “giving a break to those who could make these payments the most.”

“To give a payment reduction to those individuals who could afford to pay it the most is discouraging,” said Johnson. She also said that seeking changes through the administrative rules process that are similar to changes that failed as legislation is “disingenuous to the public.”

Jim Sullivan, director of Milwaukee County’s Department of Child Support Services, characterized the proposal to reduce payments for wealthy parents as “an overreach” of the department’s purpose. Sullivan said efforts should be done through the Legislature or through the courts.

He said his office handles one-third of the state’s child support cases and has not heard any requests for changes to the formula for high-income parents.

If DCF Secretary Eloise Anderson signs off on the proposals, the changes will head to Walker’s desk for approval before they are submitted to legislative committees.

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Molly Beck covers politics and state government for the Wisconsin State Journal.