Hit the jackpot? Ante up, child support debtor

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- So, you just hit a slot machine jackpot? Hooray! Now, wait for your money while we check to see if you're on Uncle Sam's blacklist.

This could be the future of gambling.

The Bush administration wants to garnish the winnings -- at casinos, racetracks and elsewhere -- of gamblers who owe child support.

Child-support collection advocates say they would welcome any tool to recover some of the estimated $89 billion owed by deadbeat exes. But critics worry it would turn parimutuel clerks, card dealers and others into collection agents.

"Good intention, good cause, but it's implausible," said Chris Scherf, spokesman for the National Thoroughbred Associations, which represents 45 racetracks. "It's no more practical than saying you're going to do it in every bar, when someone orders a drink, taking the money and saying 'He's a deadbeat dad, and this money should be sent to Washington."'

Under the plan, announced Monday by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, President Bush's upcoming 2004 budget will include a proposal to aggressively pursue gambling winnings to raise $700 million for families over five years.

Currently, the government can garnish lottery prizes, but not winnings by child support scofflaws at casinos, horse tracks, keno parlors, jai alai arenas and off-track betting parlors.

It would cost about $40 million to establish a secure Web-based system allowing gambling establishments to check government-provided lists of people who owe, Thompson said.

In the year 2000, Americans reported $25 billion in gambling winnings on their income tax returns.

Under Bush's plan, which needs congressional approval, anyone who wins more than $5,000 would have their name checked by the Federal Parent Locator Service before they could collect, according to Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families.

The FPLS is used by the IRS, state lotteries and other government agencies to keep track of parents who owe.

If the person owed child support, the money would be deducted from the jackpot and given to the state child support collection agency for payment to the custodial parent.

"We're not saying people shouldn't be allowed to gamble," Horn said. "But there are people who owe child support and their kids need that. We hope this will discourage them from gambling it away, and instead direct it to the children.

"If they don't, it seems reasonable to us to then require that those winnings be applied against the outstanding child support debt," he said.

The system could also work by discouraging deadbeat parents from going to gamble in the first place, leaving them more liquid -- and more likely to pay what they owe on their own, Horn said.

Child support advocates approve.

"This would be a terrific option to give moms," said Gary Katz, president of Child Support Network, a Phoenix-based child support enforcement agency. "It is such a pervasive problem that any tool to help custodial parents is one that should be considered."

So do some gamblers.

"It's a good idea," said Gladys Baker, 53, of Philadelphia, a slot player at Caesars Atlantic City Hotel Casino. "If you bring money into a casino and you have dependent children, you're taking money from them. If they're neglecting their responsibilities, I say fine."

American Gaming Association President Frank Fahrenkopf Jr. said casino industry employees would need immediate, 24-hour access to accurate information about debtors from all 50 states to enforce the garnishing.

Even then it would be a burden, he said.

"Using private industry to perform functions that normally are within the realm of state government sets dangerous precedents," he said.

"For example, should banks be forced to check the child support database before they allow customers to withdraw money from their bank accounts? Should investment firms be required to scour their list of customers prior to paying dividends or posting portfolio gains?" said Fahrenkopf.

Similar proposals were floated by the Clinton administration in 1994 and 2000.

"Even if we don't get a penny in additional child support offset against gambling winnings, if people who owe child support -- before going to a gaming establishment -- pay off their debt first, then that's good for the kids," Horn said.


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