Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Gov. Rick Scott vetoes controversial alimony bill, says it could harm children in divorce cases

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott on Friday vetoed the single most contentious bill from the 2016 Legislature, a major overhaul of alimony law that would have mandated that judges start with a presumption of equal time-sharing of child custody in divorces.

Scott's veto ended weeks of suspense and highly intense lobbying campaigns on both sides during which more than 11,000 calls and emails bombarded his office, with supporters ahead by a 4-1 ratio.

Scott, who like many of his constituents has experienced divorce in his own family, delivered a veto message with an unusually personal tone.

"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," Scott's veto message said. "As such, we should be judicious and carefully consider the long-term and real-life repercussions on Florida families."

He said he was troubled by a provision in the bill (SB 668) that would require judges to begin divorce proceedings with a premise that both parents are entitled to approximately equal time with their children. Scott said that would put "the wants of a parent before the child's best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing," a decision that he said should be left to judges.

"I am certainly disappointed," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who was trying for a second time to win passage of alimony law changes following a veto by Scott in 2013. Lee called Friday's veto "quite a surprise" because lawmakers addressed Scott's earlier objection that the law could apply retroactively.

Though emotionally divisive, the bill had broad support in the Legislature, passing the House by a comfortable 74-38 tally and the Senate by a 24-14 vote in March.

"At this point it is unclear what future family law reform legislation the governor may find acceptable," Lee said in a statement. "(The) veto message is vague and does nothing to further illuminate the governor's concerns. … (It) focuses exclusively on potential outcomes without giving reasons for how the legislation could actually result in those outcomes."

Scott's decision drew rare praise from some of his most vocal critics.

"I don't say this often, but way to go, @FLGovScott," Paula Dockery, a columnist and former Republican state senator, said on Twitter.

Scott drew cheers from another longtime antagonist, the liberal National Organization for Women.

"Oh, my God, I'm ecstatic," said Barbara DeVane of NOW. "He says he's a pro-family governor, and this bill was anti-family."

Scott had been whipsawed for weeks by supporters and opponents, who clashed this week in demonstrations at the state Capitol in Tallahassee.

"Good for him!" tweeted Amy Tidd, a Democratic activist in Brevard County, who in 2010 ran against the alimony bill's House sponsor, Rep, Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne.

Workman said Friday that the decision to merge alimony and child custody provisions in one bill was, in hindsight, the wrong strategy.

"The governor's message is clear," Workman said. "We must tackle each issue in family law separately rather than lumping them all together."

Workman is a state Senate candidate who said he would tackle the issues again in the 2017 session if elected.

Troy Matson, 44, of Jacksonville, a member of the National Parents Organization and a supporter of the bill, said the drive for change will go on.

"This is a tidal wave that's coming across the country for policies that introduce equity for families into Florida," he said.

Matson, a divorced father of a 4-year-old, said time-sharing "really is in the best interests of the child."

With the fight over alimony and custody sure to continue next year, Jackie Green, a family law lawyer in Jacksonville for two decades who opposed the bill, said she would get more involved in politics.

When she heard of Scott's veto, "we had tears all the way around in our office. It was on behalf of the kids," said Green, who brought her 2-year-old daughter to Tuesday's protest in Tallahassee.

In his statement, Scott did not address other controversial aspects of the bill, such as an end to permanent alimony after a payor's retirement and a change in payments based on the length of a marriage.

His veto brings to an end his action on all bills that passed the Legislature in the session that ended March 11. The alimony legislation was one of only three bills Scott vetoed of the 272 the Legislature passed.

The governor, a multimillionaire former hospital executive, has often spoken publicly of his hardscrabble childhood in Illinois in which his mother divorced his father when he was a baby. Scott, who dotes on his four grandsons, told reporters recently that his daughter was going through a divorce.

Robert Doyel, a retired circuit judge in Polk County who joined opponents of the bill at Tuesday's protest, met with Scott's policy director, Jeffrey Woodburn, and emphasized the risks of the time-sharing idea.

"A lot of things interfere with getting kids back and forth. Who's going to get the child to the bus stop? There are all kinds of practical implications that the theoretical idea of 50-50 custody just doesn't take into account," Doyel said.

A Democrat who's running for a seat in the state House, Doyel said: "I'm not a big fan of Rick Scott — except today."

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

Clarification: Equal time-sharing in child custody cases is currently allowed in Florida but a law vetoed last week would have mandated that as a starting point in judicial decisions. An earlier version of this story online was unclear on that point.

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