State Politics

Supporters, opponents of alimony law changes clash at Capitol

Activists on both sides of Florida’s pitched battle over alimony clashed at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Activists on both sides of Florida’s pitched battle over alimony clashed at the Capitol on Tuesday. Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

Abortion and guns got all the attention, but the most emotional issue in the Florida Legislature this year was something much more personal.

Alimony.

That means divorce, children, and perhaps most of all, money. A major rewrite of the state’s alimony laws is now on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk, and he has one week to decide the fate of Senate Bill 668.

Scott has received more than 13,000 emails, calls and letters on the bill, far more than any other piece of legislation this year. Supporters outnumber opponents by 5 to 1, Scott’s office said. But emotions are so intense on both sides that he’s sure to antagonize plenty of people regardless of his decision.

Those emotions boiled over Tuesday as dozens of sign-waving supporters and opponents clashed at the Capitol, taking their arguments straight to Scott’s office.

“The people have spoken,” said Tarie MacMillan, 65, a jewelry shop owner from southeast of Tampa and lead supporter of the bill.

The proposed changes include ending permanent alimony, giving judges power to reduce alimony based on the length of a marriage, limiting alimony and child support to 55 percent of a payor’s income and adding a new presumption that children should spend approximately equal time with both divorced parents.

It’s the last major piece of legislation that lawmakers sent to Scott.

He has until April 19 to sign or veto it or let it become law without his signature, and he hasn’t signaled his intentions.

“I’ll do what I do with every bill,” Scott said at a bill signing event last week. “I look through the bill, I listen to what people are saying about the bill, and then I make the best decision.”

Scott was nowhere near the Capitol Tuesday when noisy marchers converged outside his office. He was in suburban Orlando promoting jobs in Florida at Fresh Express, a maker of precut salads owned by the fruit giant Chiquita.

The rival groups, including many in their 40s and 50s, carried signs and shouted insults at each other. When opponents — most of them women — marched to Scott’s office to deliver letters, supporters followed behind and bellowed, “Sign the bill! Sign the bill!”

“They’re rude. They’re bullies. Now we know why they’re divorced,” said Barbara DeVane of the National Organization for Women, a leader of the opposition, which includes the League of Women Voters, the National Council of Jewish Women and National Association of Social Workers.

After more than a half hour, Scott’s director of citizen services, Warren Davis, appeared and listened attentively as he took notes. Two supporters separately held a meeting with two of Scott’s aides, Jeffrey Woodburn and Megan DeMartini Fay.

Melissa Isaak, a lawyer from Montgomery, Ala., urged Scott to sign the bill. Her firm exclusively represents men in divorces and she said opponents like the status quo for one reason: money.

“These family law attorneys are encouraging litigation,” Isaak told Davis.

Isaak also said children of divorced parents who can’t see both parents equally are more likely to suffer from depression, alcohol abuse, truancy and other problems.

Supporters rallied first on the steps of the historic Old Capitol and called on Scott to sign the bill. They wore red as a symbol of love, passion and solidarity, supporter Alan Frisher of Melbourne said.

Their spokeswoman, jewelry store owner MacMillan, said she pays 65 percent of her income to her ex-husband who won’t work, and has to keep paying until she dies or he dies.

“It is hell,” MacMillan said. “It is like having a part-time job that you didn’t apply for. It’s a horrible process that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.”

Over the past 16 years, she said, she had paid more than $1 million in alimony and legal fees. If the bill becomes law, she said, she can retire and would no longer be required to pay alimony.

MacMillan, whose fingernails are painted in the blue logo of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, predicted Scott will be more unpopular than ever if he vetoes the bill.

Opponents pushing for a veto claim the changes would be especially harmful to older women. Ann Dwyer, 71, of Longwood, called for a veto, saying she was a stay-at-home mom and works as a part-time accountant and lives on Social Security in addition to her ex-husband’s permanent alimony payment that could end if the bill becomes law.

“I’ll have to work till I drop,” Dwyer said.

One of the bill’s most controversial elements is creating a new presumption that both parents should share custody of children.

Both sides disagree as to whether the bill can be applied retroactively. Supporters say it cannot; opponents say it can by allowing changes in the size of alimony payments in certain circumstances.

“Children are used as pawns between parents jockeying for leverage,” Skye Reynolds of Largo, a supporter, emailed Scott last week. “[The] bill would eliminate this.”

Opponents include Brian Burgess, a Tallahassee media consultant who was Scott’s communications director in his first term, and who called it “absurd” and “dangerous” to assume that both parents enter time-sharing negotiations as equals.

In an op-ed for Florida newspapers, Burgess said the decision for Scott is easy: a veto.

“The bill encourages deadbeat parents to ask for more time with their kids in exchange for paying lower levels of child support, even when more time with that parent isn’t in the child’s best interest,” Burgess wrote.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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