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Child support privatization pushed

Published 9:51pm Tuesday, February 12, 2013

JACKSON (AP) — Two prominent Republicans, including a nephew of former Gov. Haley Barbour, are lobbying for bills that would let the Mississippi Department of Human Services hire private companies to collect overdue child support payments.

Democratic lawmakers say the bills seem geared to put private firms on track to make big money by performing government services.

“It’s a greased pig already. Somebody up on high already knows who’s going to get this contract,” state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said during debate Tuesday.

No company’s name was mentioned during the House debate or a Senate debate last week. But, Sen. Nancy Adams Collins, R-Tupelo, said in an interview that when she explained a bill to the Senate, she used information provided by lobbyists Austin Barbour and Arnie Hederman, including statistics about the number of child support cases in the state, about 435,000, and the amount of overdue money, about $1.1 billion.

Barbour said he and Hederman are lobbying on behalf of their client, YoungWilliams Child Support Services, a Jackson-based company that already runs a DHS call center in Yazoo County. YoungWilliams says on its website that it has 36 offices in 11 states, including three in Mississippi.

Haley Barbour, a two-term Republican, left office in January 2012. Austin Barbour also worked in 2012 on the Boston-based national campaign staff for Mitt Romney, the GOP presidential nominee. Hederman is a former chairman of the state Republican Party.

Hederman and Austin Barbour are partners in a Jackson lobbying firm.

Lawmakers said any company that receives a contract to collect child support payments would keep a portion of the money, so a contract could be worth millions.

Austin Barbour told The Associated Press on Tuesday that if a bill to allow privatization of child support collections becomes law, “I’m sure YoungWilliams will take a look at that and make a determination if they would like to bid or not.”

Lawmakers are advancing two bills that would allow DHS to have a contract with a private company, or companies, to collect child support. A custodial parent who has trouble collecting court-ordered child support from the other parent can hire a private attorney or seek help through DHS.

House Bill 1009 passed the House 59-57 Tuesday. A similar measure, Senate Bill 2734, passed the Senate 35-16 last week. The two chambers would have to agree on a single bill before anything could go to the governor.

Supporters say using a private company for collections is a way to improve efficiency and get money to children who need it.

Opponents say Mississippi’s experience with privatizing child support collections from 1995 to 2000 was disastrous. A Virginia-based company, Maximus, had the contract then.

Both sides say DHS has too few attorneys working in child support collections, and the ones it has are overworked and underpaid.

A proposal by state Rep. John Hines, D-Greenville, would’ve required DHS to set up a competitive process to award a contract for child support collections, with the state Department of Finance and Administration reviewing the process.

Rep. Jerry Turner, chairman of the House Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee, argued against Hines’ proposal and defended the House-approved bill. He said private companies would be compensated by taking a share of the money that’s collected.

“They’re not taking anything from the child because the child’s not getting anything to start with,” Turner said.

The committee’s vice chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Crawford, R-Pass Christian, said the bill was filed at the request of the governor’s office.

Bryant spokesman Mick Bullock said in an interview later: “It is not the governor’s bill. However, the governor does believe it’s a good idea.”

During the Senate debate last week, supporters said DHS could divide the state into regions and hire a company, or companies, to handle child support collections in some parts of the state, with the agency continuing to handle the collections in other areas.

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