Legislation that would deny food assistance to parents who have not been cooperating with the state’s efforts to collect child support is getting another airing-out after being vetoed in 2019.
The bill, brought by Billings Republican Rep. Frank Fleming, was sharply criticized Thursday by a succession of single mothers, advocacy group lobbyists and other opponents as endangering already vulnerable women in poverty while yielding minimal cooperation with child support in other states that have enacted similar laws.
“I think it is especially cruel that a bill such as this would be introduced during a pandemic, when instead of finding ways to kick people off of assistance, we should be finding ways to help them,” Danielle Vazquez, with Indigenous Organizers Collective of Montana, told the House Human Services Committee.
House Bill 339 would make cooperation with the child support program a condition of eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known commonly as food stamps. The food-stamp program directs federal funding to recipients based on their income level.
SNAP recipients able to provide proof of “good cause,” as defined in federal law, for not participating in child support would be exempted from the new requirement. That includes circumstances where cooperation would make it harder for the parent or child to escape from domestic violence, sexual abuse or mental abuse.
Scott Centorino, with the conservative think tank Foundation for Government Accountability, was the sole proponent to testify in favor of the bill. He pointed to similar legislation that had been enacted in other states, which he said had resulted in sharply increased child-support collections.
“It gets single moms the cash that they’re owed, so they can leave welfare,” Centorino said. Regarding the requirement that those social welfare recipients cooperate with child-support programs, he added, “Mostly it just means not slamming the door in the face of people trying to get you the support you’re owed.”
More than a dozen opponents to the legislation, however, painted a dire picture of how that requirement would impact single parents, particularly women. Committee Chairman Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, limited speakers to three minutes each.
Breanna Belgard, a victim advocate from Dillon, told the committee that many women have valid reasons for not engaging with the government’s child-support programs. She shared the story of her friend, who she said had a court-ordered child support agreement with an abusive former partner for her three children.
“That man would threaten to quit his job and work for cash under the table, he would threaten to withhold child support unless he received sexual favors,” she said. “He would threaten not to return her children after visitation, and he would require her at times to pay all or portions of her tax returns after filing her taxes.”
Other opponents argued that low-income grandparents could be forced to navigate the bureaucracy of child support programs to continue getting benefits, while requiring them to go after their own children for payments.
Montana Women Vote representative S.J. Howell noted that some custodial parents prefer informal arrangements with the non-custodial parents that allow for child care in lieu of money. The law would effectively punish those custodial parents, Howell said.
“Simply taking SNAP away from non-custodial parents who are struggling to meet their own basic needs can hurt both the parent and the children,” Howell added. “We know that many times folks who aren’t paying child support are out of compliance because they simply cannot pay.”
The predecessor to Fleming’s bill was vetoed in 2019 by then-Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat. House Bill 290, also sponsored by a Billings Republican, Rep. Peggy Webb, had passed the House 54-44 and the Senate 28-21 that session.
The committee took no immediate action on Fleming's bill Thursday.