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California's Tax Man Hot On Trail of Deadbeat Dads

CALIFORNIA is expanding a novel program aimed at collecting delinquent child-support payments - one being watched by other states and Uncle Sam.

A pilot program begun five months ago that uses state taxing authorities to help retrieve past-due payments is now being extended to ``deadbeat'' parents nationwide.

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By going after the wages of even those who move out of state, authorities hope to take in more than $100 million - and erase the state's image as one of the worst for child-support compliance.

``What we're saying now is, `You can leave the state but you cannot run out on your children,' '' says state controller Gray Davis.

The pilot program was launched last December in six counties. Traditionally, county district attorneys have been responsible for recovering most delinquent payments.

Under the pilot project, district attorneys forward the toughest collection cases to the state Franchise Tax Board, which then uses its computers and other resources to capture the money. The agency has the authority to deduct sums from an individual's wages and bank accounts as well as seize property.

The program has worked well so far. The state has collected $11.2 million from in-state parents, helping 12,000 families. Now it wants to go after 11,600 out-of-staters, which could bring in as much as $103 million. ``The program elevates the obligation to pay child support to the level of paying taxes,'' says Valerie Purnell of Children Now, a California advocacy group.

US Census figures indicate that only 1 in 4 women eligible for child support in the country receives full payment. Some 17 million children are owed $34 billion. Several bills in Congress would expand the role of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in collecting delinquent payments.

Some people, in fact, want the IRS to take over collection of child-support payments from the states. President Clinton is expected to call for a somewhat broader IRS role in his welfare-reform package. Many state officials, though, chafe at the idea.

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Massachusetts revenue officials have been involved in child-support collection for years, while Arkansas and Florida are moving forward with programs.

Some critics raise privacy and due-process concerns with the growing role of tax authorities in this area. Others applaud the move. ``It is a good idea,'' says Geraldine Jensen, president of the Ohio-based Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.

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