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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014

Scott vague on alimony limits issue

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TAMPA -

Alimony haters were encouraged earlier this month when a bill to end permanent alimony passed the Florida Legislature by a nearly 3-1 margin, but the battle over the legislation’s fate now has shifted to the governor’s office.

So far, Gov. Rick Scott has given no clues about his intentions on legislation that could make him enemies no matter what he does.

The governor can sign the bill into law; he can opt out of signing it, a largely symbolic gesture that says he may not agree with it, but it’s the will of the legislative bodies; or he can veto the legislation, despite overwhelming support in both the Senate and House of Representatives.

“We are reviewing the bill,” was all Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for the governor, would say Thursday.

As of Wednesday morning, she said, the office had received 3,555 letters, phone calls and emails about the bill from the public.

She said 475 opposed the bill, 3,076 supported it and four voiced other opinions.

The measure virtually eliminates permanent alimony and limits settlements for marriages that don’t last long. It also allows for the reopening of divorce cases in which alimony settlements have been made.

Among those pushing the governor for a veto is Cathy Jones of Lakeland, who joined the fight against the measure just a few weeks ago after she found some supporters characterizing ex-spouses who get alimony as “parasites and barnacles.”

“I am not a lobbyist,” Jones said. “I’m just a single, stay-at-home mom in graduate school who takes great offense at what the alimony reform bill will do to children of divorce, disabled women, women with adult children with disabilities and women in general.”

She said the number of supporters reported by the governor’s office is bloated, that the correspondence is coming from the same people, many of whom aren’t Florida voters.

“Many women and men (opposing the measure) are emailing the governor’s office,” she said. “They are signing the petition and sending personal letters. We feel he should veto this legislation and send it back.”

Jones said that if the governor signs the legislation into law, he will alienate divorced women as well as married women who have chosen to stay home and are now forced to worry about resurrecting careers.

The governor, she said, “will be making only a very small population of divorced men happy.”

Supporters of the alimony bill aren’t claiming victory yet.

“Like anybody, we have to wonder,” said Alan Frisher, director of Florida Alimony Reform, which spearheaded the effort to change the law.

He said the lobbying effort did not stop with lawmakers and now is directed at the governor’s office.

“With a supermajority vote in both the House and Senate,” he said, “we would have to believe that he would recognize the importance of that when he makes his decision.”

The Legislature passed the bill earlier this month, 85-31 in the House on April 18 and 29-11 in the Senate on April 4.

Supporters say changes are needed to help divorced people get on with their lives, to unfetter them from their ex-spouses.

Opponents say the proposed law takes away the discretion of judges and sometimes leaves divorced spouses — often middle-aged, mostly women with limited job prospects — with no income and no retirement or Social Security benefits.

The biggest change passed by the Legislature: abolition of lifetime alimony, replaced with support that has a foreseeable end. The reform also makes it harder to get alimony in marriages that last fewer than 10 years. And the bill generally would prevent courts from ordering alimony for longer than half the length of a marriage.

Florida is one of several states where alimony laws are being challenged. Last year Massachusetts did away with most permanent alimony and similar bills have been introduced in Connecticut, New Jersey and Oregon.

The change effort in Florida has taken a couple of years to build up steam, Frisher said.

“Every step of the way has been challenging,” he said, “but we’ve succeeded at every step of the way. Now it’s up to one man who has been noncommittal, and nobody knows which way he will go.”


kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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