For the second time in three years, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed a controversial alimony proposal, this time blaming an even more-contentious child custody component included in the latest bill.
The proposal vetoed Friday would have created a formula, based on the length of marriage and the combined incomes of both spouses, for judges to use when setting alimony payments. After years of disagreement on the issue, alimony reform advocates and The Florida Bar’s Family Law Section supported the alimony proposal, which would have also eliminated permanent alimony while giving judges some discretion to veer from the formula.
But the plan became one of the most hotly contested issues of the 2016 legislative session when it was amended to include a child-sharing component that would have required judges to begin with a “premise” that children should split their time equally between parents.
The proposed time-sharing changes could potentially upend the state’s current policy of putting the needs of children first in favor of parents’ wishes when judges determine custody arrangements, Scott wrote in Friday’s veto letter.
The proposed revisions “have evoked passionate reactions from thousands of Floridians because divorce affects families in many different ways,” Scott wrote.
Men, women and a handful of children on both sides of the measure (SB 668) clashed outside of Scott’s office Tuesday, before representatives met with the governor’s policy director to make last-ditch pitches. Scott received nearly 10,000 messages urging him to sign the bill into law, more than three times the number of requests for a veto.
“As a husband, father and grandfather, I understand the importance of family and the sensitivity and passion that comes with the subject of family law. Family law issues are very personal, and nearly every family comes to the court with different circumstances and needs. As such, we must be judicious and carefully consider the long term and real life repercussions on Florida families,” he wrote.
But “the one constant” when a divorce involves a young child is “the needs of the child must come before all others” when judges determine parenting schedules, something now required by Florida law, Scott wrote.
“This bill has the potential to upend that policy in favor of putting the wants of a parent before the child’s best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing. Our judges must consider each family’s unique situation and abilities and put the best interests of the child above all else,” he concluded.
Scott’s veto drew a barbed response from Senate budget chief Tom Lee, who has pushed the child custody issue.
Lee, a former Senate president, said he met with Scott’s staff throughout the session in an attempt to address some of the concerns expressed in the governor’s 2013 veto of a similar alimony bill. Scott objected to a retroactivity provision in the 2013 legislation, which was not included in this year’s bill. Scott’s aides wouldn’t give any clear guidelines about what might please the governor, Lee indicated in a statement issued Friday afternoon.
“At this point it is unclear what future family law reform legislation the governor may find acceptable. Today’s veto message is vague and does nothing to further illuminate the governor’s concerns,” Lee, a Brandon Republican whose wife is a judge, wrote. “Specifically, the veto message focuses exclusively on potential outcomes, without giving reasons for how the legislation could actually result in those outcomes. Current law is clear that the best interest of the children remains paramount and it is the primary responsibility of judges to make a determination based on 20 factors listed in current law. Senate Bill 668 does nothing to change the primary role of the court, which is to do what is in the best interest of the children.”
Lee said he remained “hopeful that we can continue to work to find a solution for the thousands of families across our state who are seeking meaningful changes in family law.”
Other alimony reform advocates aren’t backing down, but will try to keep the time-sharing and alimony issues in separate bills next year.
“We still believe, as an organization, child sharing is important. We just don’t want it to hurt our chances for alimony reform, which is what happened this session.” Family Law Reform founder Alan Frisher, who has spent nearly a decade pushing the issue, said in a telephone interview Friday.
The alimony measure has been mired in controversy since Scott’s first veto three years ago.
A revised version of the measure, which included the formula included in this year’s proposal, died in 2015 after being enmeshed in a dispute between Lee and House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman, a key alimony-overhaul supporter who opposed the child-sharing component.
Late in this year’s legislative session, Workman and Lee reached a compromise regarding the child-sharing language. Instead of requiring a “presumption” of equal time-sharing between parents, the proposal instructed judges to begin with a “premise” that children will divide their time equally between both parents.
The Family Law Section of the Florida Bar, which for years had opposed the alimony reform efforts but worked with Workman, Frisher and others to develop the formula, opposed the child-sharing portion of the bill. Late in the session, the Family Law Section hired lobbyists close to Scott — including the governor’s former legislative affairs director, Jon Costello, and Slater Bayliss — to persuade the governor to veto the proposal.
The National Organization for Women and the League of Women Voters of Florida and some conservative groups also opposed the bill, which they argued would be especially harmful for older homemakers who have few prospects of lucrative employment after spending much of their lives caring for children and husbands.
Family Law Section Chairwoman Maria Gonzalez hailed Scott’s veto, saying the bill would have caused more litigation if it had become law.
Divorces or paternity cases in which couples are separating are “tough situations for the entire family” but are particularly painful for children, Gonzalez said.
“So when mom and dad come in front of the judge the best thing they can have is a clean slate and have a judge consider the uniqueness of the family, and also the needs of the particular family and come up and craft a good parenting plan, a good time-sharing schedule that works best for that family,” she said.
Calling Scott’s veto “crushing and devastating,” Frisher accused the governor of ignoring the will of “the highest court, the court of public opinion.”
“He did not listen to our citizens. He did not listen to our legislators. One man made this determination. I understand he’s a family man, but he’s also our governor. And that made me even more disappointed,” he said.