COLUMBUS - The Ohio Senate yesterday unanimously agreed to bankroll an audit of child-support accounts to identify former welfare families from whom the state improperly withheld $38 million in support and income tax refunds.
But it could be another 18 months before the last family gets its refund with interest. Although the Department of Job and Family Services says it believes it will complete the process in that time, the Senate refused to formalize the 18-month deadline.
“We've had too many broken promises to the children, and we would like them to put it in writing,” said Geri Jensen, president of the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.
The bill, which funds an executive order signed by Gov. Bob Taft, is scheduled for a hearing this morning in the House and could be sent to the governor's desk next week.
An estimated 165,000 families may have been affected. The department, faced with mounting federal fines for failing to meet deadlines for its automated support collection system, opted not to stop to reprogram the system to reflect changes in the 1996 federal welfare reform law.
The system continued to withhold past-due checks owed families who had left the welfare system as a means of recouping government costs despite the fact that the new law moved those families ahead of the state on the priority list for distribution of those payments.
The decision has led to lawsuits in state and federal courts. It is expected to cost more than $60 million to correct, including interest and $18 million to reimburse 88 counties for auditing their accounts. In some cases, these audits will mean pulling boxes out of storage to manually review files dating to 1997.
State Sen. Jeff Jacobson (R., Phillipsburg) said he feared putting the 18-month deadline in writing might give the department the impression it could wait until the last minute to finish the task.
“The next response will not be pretty...,” he said. “I expect them to have it done as fast as they can. I'm not interested in waiting 18 months.”
The Senate did add a requirement that the department appear before it every six months to update lawmakers.
Meanwhile, the department has reprogrammed its Support Enforcement Tracking System to comply with federal law pertaining to the withholding of administrative fees for the handling of the checks. County support agencies fear the change could cost them as much as $18 million a year, plus potentially $36 million more in federal matching funds.