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Rick Scott vetoes contentious alimony bill

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed a controversial alimony reform bill, saying in his veto letter the legislation had the potential to put the “wants of a parent before the child’s best interest.”

The bill was the last one sent to the governor, and is the final bill of the 2016 legislative session he needed to take action on. The Naples Republican signed two other bills — a bill dealing with mental health and substance abuse and another streamlining the process for veterans to receive benefits — into law Friday.

In his veto letter, Scott commended the bill’s sponsors — Sens. Tom Lee and Kelli Stargel, and Reps. Colleen Burton and Ritch Workman — for their efforts to reform the state’s divorce and alimony laws. However, Scott expressed concerns that the legislation would have an adverse effect on children.

“Current law directs a judge to consider the needs and interests of the children first when determining a parenting plan and time-sharing schedule,” said Scott in his letter to Secretary of State Ken Detzner. “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.”

Scott said the state’s judges “must consider each family’s unique situation and abilities and put the best interests of the child above all else.”

The bill passed the Senate 24-14, before clearing the House on a 74-38 vote. Among other things, the legislation would have created a legal premise for child custody plans that said children should spend equal time with each parent. Under the proposed legislation, judges would have still had the latitude to decide custody questions after a divorce.

“In the end, Rick Scott is a family values conservative, and this was the right choice to protect children and their primary caretaker,” said Brian Burgess, a media relations consultant who urged Scott to veto the bill, in a statement Friday.

That provision is what led the Family Law Section of the Florida Bar to lobby for a veto. The group had initially backed this year’s proposal.

“We are very pleased that, with his veto of SB 668, Governor Scott has done the right thing by putting Florida’s children first,” said John Giotis, chairman of the Florida Council for Safe Communities, in a statement.” Divorce is always a very difficult situation, and this bill would have put its most vulnerable victims, children, at risk. We sincerely hope that, going forward, any reforms to Florida family law will put the best interests of Florida children above all other concerns.”

The Governor’s Office received more than 11,000 emails and phone calls about the proposal. About 80 percent of those messages were from supporters.

Scott acknowledged the contentious nature of the measure in his veto letter, saying the revisions “evoked passionate reactions from thousands of Floridians because divorce affects families in many different ways.”

In a statement Friday, Workman said he was disappointed the governor decided to veto the bill, but understood his reasons

“The governor’s message is clear; we must tackle each issue in family law separately rather than lumping them all together,” said Workman. “I am committed to reforming these issues. Next session I intend to facilitate individual bills regarding alimony payments, child custody and other family law issues. The system has long been in need of significant overall and Florida families deserve consistency and fairness in their divorce proceedings.”

The bill also would have changed the way Florida judges could award alimony. The measure would have allowed the courts to reduce alimony payments if there was a “substantial change in circumstance.” That could mean the person paying the alimony becomes unemployed or reaches the age to receive full Social Security benefits.

Scott vetoed an attempt to modify the alimony law in 2013. At the time, he said it tampered with the “settled economic expectations of many Floridians who have experienced divorce.”

Lee said he met with the governor’s staff on numerous occasions to assure them he was committed to addressing those concerns. However, Lee said no specific concerns were articulated to him beyond the those expressed in the 2013 veto message.

Scott did not address financial portion of the bill in his veto letter, focusing only on the child custody portion.

“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,” said Scott in his veto letter. “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.”

In a statement, Lee called Scott’s veto message vague and said it “does nothing to further illuminate the Governor’s concerns.”

“Specifically, the veto message focuses exclusively on potential outcomes, without giving reasons for how the legislation could actually result in those outcomes,” said Lee in a statement. “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.”

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