Controversial alimony-reform bill causes clash at Florida Capitol



The scene outside Gov. Rick Scott's office Tuesday may have been even more acrimonious than the alimony bill awaiting his action.

Men, women and a handful of children crammed into a waiting room, some bearing posters and balloons, attempting to bully each other into changing their positions on one of the legislative session's most controversial measures, a proposal that would overhaul the state's alimony laws and change the way judges decide child time-sharing arrangements.

But after a two-hour standoff, the attempts at conversion were futile.

The legislation awaiting Scott's action (SB 668) lays out a formula based on the lengths of marriages and the incomes of spouses for judges to use as a guide when determining alimony payments.

But the most contentious part of the measure involves not alimony but offspring. It would tell judges that, when determining child-custody arrangements, they should begin with a "premise" that children should split time equally between parents.

Proponents of the bill held a press conference Tuesday morning on the steps of the Old Capitol, an hour before opponents gathered outside Scott's office to urge the governor to veto the measure.

Scott's policy director, Jeff Woodburn, met with representatives of both groups, who packed into Scott's waiting room and at times got into heated exchanges. At one point, proponents of the measure —- including many who were clad in red T-shirts emblazoned with messages supporting "father's rights" —- erupted into a chant urging Scott to "Sign the bill!"

Tensions outside Scott's office grew even higher when one of the governor's aides escorted Family Law Reform founder Alan Frisher, who has been pushing the alimony overhaul for years, into Scott's inner sanctum, leaving opponents in the crush outside the locked doors.

Lobbyist Jon Costello —- Scott's former legislative affairs director who was hired by the Family Law Section of The Florida Bar in the waning days of the legislative session —- diffused the situation after securing a meeting with Woodburn for Robert Doyle, a retired Polk County circuit judge, and Heather Quick, a Jacksonville divorce lawyer, who oppose the bill.

The crowd outside Scott's office included divorced fathers who have lost custody battles for their children. It also included second wives who complain about their husbands' ex-wives refusing to work or marry live-in lovers, which would put the kibosh on alimony payments.

"Signing this bill is a huge step forward in making Florida fair," said Tarie MacMillan, 65, who said she has been paying alimony for 16 years to her ex-husband, to whom she was married for 13 years.

On the other side, women who said they were victims of domestic violence called for Scott to veto the measure, which they said would keep women trapped indefinitely in abusive relationships.

Doyle, the retired circuit judge, called the proposal "bad for kids."

"Parents come to court not focused on what's best for their children but what's best for them," Doyle said. "It was all me, me, me. This is a 'me' bill for parents."

After the near-fracas outside Scott's office, Carey Hoffman, a divorced mother, called a 50-50 time-sharing split for her children problematic.

"We thought when we mediated, that doing a 50-50 timeshare of one week on and one week off would be more stable for the kids. It just isn't. They need somewhere stable to be and know that everybody loves them instead of being stuck in the middle of all of this. They are the ones suffering through it," she said.

But divorced father Larry Rutan questioned who could oppose the concept of equal time sharing.

"I mean, you start off with that presumption, and then from there you go and make your assessment about the different individuals," Rutan said.

Scott, who has been inundated with emails in support of the bill, has until April 19 to sign, veto or let the measure become law without his signature. After his staff met with both sides Tuesday morning, the governor's office gave no indication how Scott would handle the bill.

"Today, members of the governor's leadership team met with leadership from both sides of the alimony debate. Also, several members of our citizen services team met with dozens of concerned citizens both in opposition to and support of the bill. We appreciate their opinions and we think it is important for Floridians to be able to have their voices heard. The governor will continue to listen to Floridians that submit thoughts and views on this legislation," Scott spokesman John Tupps said in a statement.

The alimony measure has been mired in controversy since Scott vetoed lawmakers' first stab at an alimony overhaul three years ago.

A revised version of the measure, which included the formula included in this year's proposal, died last year after being enmeshed in a dispute between two prominent lawmakers —- House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman, who opposed the child-sharing component, and Senate budget chief Tom Lee, who wanted it included in the alimony legislation.

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 awaiting Scott's action would instruct 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 supported the alimony formula, opposed the child-sharing portion of the bill, and hired lobbyists close to Scott —- including Costello and Slater Bayliss —- to persuade the governor to veto the proposal.

In his veto message in 2013, Scott objected that the measure could have been applied retroactively. While this year's proposal does not specifically include a retroactivity provision regarding alimony, critics of the proposal, including retired judges, claim that it would enable modifications to current alimony agreements that essentially would create the same problems in the vetoed legislation.

The child-sharing portion of the proposal would only apply to parenting agreements established after Oct. 1, if the bill becomes law.

After meeting with Woodburn, Frisher said that Scott's aides expressed concern about time-sharing issue.

"Their main concern was with people possibly gaming the system and asking for equal time sharing and not actually spending the time with the children," Frisher said.

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