- Associated Press - Friday, February 3, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina expects to pay nearly $14 million in federal penalties this year alone because the state still lacks a computer system to track deadbeat parents, but Department of Social Services officials are hopeful the Trump administration may excuse fines as the project nears completion.

The system, in the works since the early ‘90s, is on track to operate statewide by September 2019, project manager Jimmy Earley ensured senators Thursday. Fines are supposed to keep mounting until then.

But DSS Director Susan Alford said “a conversation needs to start” on whether new leaders in Washington “would still require us to pay penalties in the final years.”

While stressing “there’s nothing now indicating” a waiver, Alford said DSS officials need to fully explain the situation to Gov. Henry McMaster, an early Donald Trump supporter who succeeded Nikki Haley last week when she became U.N. ambassador.

Some legislators think “we need to take advantage of the new connections” between McMaster and Trump, Alford said.

South Carolina is the only state yet to comply with a 1988 federal law requiring a centralized computer system for collecting, enforcing and distributing child support payments. Currently, 47 separate networks are maintained by DSS and each county clerk of court. The lack of automation allows deadbeat parents to skip payments for months without detection or move from one county to another and disappear from the child support system entirely.

The state has been fined more than $145 million since missing its extended 1997 deadline, though previous contractors have paid some of that.

A series of contract disputes and lawsuits helps explain decades of delays. The latest contract with Xerox, signed in 2015, set a four-year timeline.

“We are riding herd on you to stay on schedule,” the panel’s chairman, Sen. Tom Young of Aiken, told Earley.

Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington, said she fears that without fines “hanging over their head,” DSS would get lax on implementation.

“Heaven forbid we wait any longer,” she said after the meeting. “Anything that’s taken someone 30 years to fix is way too long. … They sure as heck better get it done by 2019.”

Earley, who took over the project in 2015, said a system rollout will start in October 2018 in Aiken, Fairfield and York counties.

The agency’s 2017-18 budget request includes $25 million to continue developing the system and pay the penalty due in September. Without a waiver, more fines must be paid in September 2018. Another year of penalties would accrue if the system’s not fully operational by Oct. 1, 2019, the start of the federal fiscal year.

Earley told senators hiring people to accelerate the process won’t save any money.

The federal government doesn’t currently allow “partial credit” for finishing months early, Earley said. “You have to cut off an entire year of the project to save any of the penalty. We would spend as much as we would hope to save.”

Shealy said she’s “just not buying into all that.”

“We’d have to hire a whole lot of staff to spend $13 million,” she said.

The purpose of the online system is to find parents who are behind on child support payments weeks sooner, helping children and their single parents who often are struggling economically.

Under the new network, parents won’t be able to skirt payments simply by moving out of county or state: The system will communicate electronically with other states as well as clerks of court within the state. The system will also make it easier to track someone’s employment and garnish wages.

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