Star-Telegram Austin Bureau
AUSTIN - At campaign stops around Texas and in his targeted TV commercials, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Morales warns that parents who shirk their child-support obligations will have no safe harbor if he is elected.
But when Morales had the responsibility to enforce child-support collections for about 1 million children as Texas attorney general from 1991 through 1998, his office recovered only 18 cents for every dollar owed, several state studies from the time showed.
In fact, three lawmakers were so frustrated with Morales' performance at the time that they pushed legislation that would have stripped the attorney general's office of the power to enforce child-support collection. The measure was passed by the Senate in 1997 but was modified in the House to effectively place Morales' child-support division on probation.
"His record on child support was pretty much abysmal," said state Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, the bill's House sponsor.
Goodman, chairman of the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee, recalled several legislative hearings during the mid-1990s when he and state Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington, tangled with Morales and his staff over the attorney general's child-support division. The lawmakers' complaints included:
A $76 million computer system purchased by Morales was not able to fully track the location of absentee parents, how much they owe, or how much interest had accrued on their accounts.
As attorney general, Morales blamed the computer problems on the vendor that designed the system and brushed aside the GOP lawmakers' criticism as partisan attempts to gain headlines. In this gubernatorial campaign, Morales has said that collections increased 243 percent during his two terms as attorney general.
Morales is in a primary fight with Laredo businessman Tony Sanchez, Houston lawyer John WorldPeace and Waxahachie businessman Bill Lyon for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Gov. Rick Perry in November. The primary is March 12.
"I will match my record on child support against that of any other attorney general," Morales told reporters in Austin recently. "Our child-support division shattered all previous records and collected more than $4 billion for the children of this state."
However, studies by two state agencies and by a consulting firm hired by lawmakers to evaluate Morales' child-support division said that using dollars as the only yardstick is misleading. Morales took in more dollars than predecessor Jim Mattox, but his collection rate was far behind Mattox when the increased number of caseloads under Morales were factored in, reports show.
"The child-support division is falling behind at an increasing rate and caseload processing has not kept pace with overall caseload growth," according to a November 1998 report by the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, which evaluates the performance of state agencies.
The commission found that the number of paternities established declined 13 percent from September 1997 to September 1998. The division processed 3,000 fewer orders for child support in 1998 than it had in 1997.
A follow-up report by the Sunset Commission released two years after Morales handed the attorney general's office over to Republican John Cornyn showed dramatic improvements in the collection rate and in the responsiveness of the child-support field workers.
The amount of money disbursed by the agency increased from $757 million in 1998 to $1.03 billion by 2000, rising faster than the pace of new cases being added, according to the report.
Jim Moore, a spokesman for Morales, said Cornyn's administration was reaping the benefits of work begun by the Democrat.
"Technology has matured since Dan Morales was attorney general. The glitches with the computer system have been solved," Moore said. "The Internet was in its infancy then - now it's a tool that's widely used to assist state government and the public."
As a House member in 1997, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, joined Goodman and Harris in the effort to strip the attorney general's office of its child-support enforcement responsibilities.
"It was a hard decision for me," Van de Putte said. "At that time, Dan was the only Hispanic elected statewide, and I am Hispanic. He was from my hometown, and he was a fellow Democrat."
But Van de Putte said she was frustrated over the child-support division.
"I was hearing firsthand the problems that custodial moms were having getting the money that was owed to them," said Van de Putte, who is backing Sanchez in the governor's race.
"John Cornyn, to his credit, has put in a team that's committed to tackling the child-support problem. And the fact is, we're not getting the amount of calls that we used to."
ONLINE: Attorney general's Child Support Division, www.oag.state.tx.us, "Child Support" link
John Moritz, (512) 476-4294 firstname.lastname@example.org