April 6, 2016 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
One hundred pages of documents just obtained by the National Parents Organization reveal that the Family Law Section (FLS) of the Florida Bar has been playing fast and loose with the facts, not only about SB 668, but about its excuses for opposing the bill. The FLS has misrepresented the facts to the press, the public and, most remarkably, to its own members. And, since it’s encouraged its members to contact Governor Scott to veto the bill, it’s likely he too has heard their inaccurate claims.
The documents NPO received consist of emails among members of the FLS’s Legislation Committee (LC), minutes of meetings of the Legislation Committee and contracts signed by the LC and their paid lobbyists. Most revealing are the minutes of the meetings.
As late as the April 2nd edition of the Daily Business Review, the FLS was suggesting that the shared parenting language had been slipped into Sb 668 secretly at the last minute before they’d had an opportunity to review it or comment. That of course was designed to make proponents of SB 668 look sneaky and underhanded.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the documents now in NPO’s possession make clear that the FLS was deeply involved in – and opposed to - the process to reform alimony and parenting time from the start. And, since the FLS had two paid lobbyists on the job in Tallahassee, they knew every detail and every change to every bill.
So, the January 28th meeting of the LC received a report from member FLS Tom Sasser who explained that there were then four bills in committee that would reform alimony and that each one had a “50/50” parenting time provision. That’s some six weeks before SB 668 passed both houses of the legislature by overwhelming margins.
The FLS’s pretense that it was not party to the proceedings is considerably undermined not only by the obvious fact that they were involved every step of the way, but by the admission in the minutes of its meeting of February 19th that the chief sponsor of SB 668, Senator Kelli Stargell “has reached out to us (the Legislation Committee) and FLS for some language.” So what did the LC do? It produced some language alright, but only after a vote of the committee that such language could contain no reference whatsoever to equality of parenting time. They word “equal” was banned. The LC language received a unanimous vote of committee members, 24 – 0. Stargell, unsurprisingly, rejected their rejection of equal parenting.
From there, the documents reveal the rising alarm among LC members at the progress of alimony reform and especially shared parenting legislation. Eventually, alarm turned to desperation and the “emergency” hiring of paid lobbyists that brought the FLS’s lobbying expenditures equal to that of the entire rest of the Bar. Throughout the legislative session, LC members referred to their desire to stop shared parenting becoming law with words like “critical,” “urgent” and “Importance: High.”
As the legislative tide turned against them, they concluded that the only way to stop shared parenting from becoming law was to have their members deluge the governor’s office with calls and emails.
And what emails! With the explicit approval of the General Counsel of the Florida Bar, the Chairperson of the Family Law Section, Maria G. Gonzalez, sent out an email “blast” to members urging them to contact Governor Scott. Talking points consisted of the claim that SB 668 constitutes a “50/50 time sharing” law, which it plainly does not. In fact, it calls equal time a starting point from which judges should work. In determining parenting time, though, those judges would be required to apply the same 20 factors required by existing law. The reference to a “50/50 time sharing” misrepresented the bill to FLS members, likely in the hopes they wouldn’t read the bill themselves.
The second justification for the FLS’s opposition was the claim that SB 668 would require judges to issue detailed findings of fact in every case unless the parents agreed otherwise. Again, that’s simply untrue. In fact judges would be required to issue findings of fact only in cases in which unequal parenting is ordered and the parents didn’t agree to the order. Since most cases are agreed by the parents, judges would rarely be called upon to issue findings of fact.
A final objection to SB 668 that didn’t make it into Gonzalez’ email blast was concern about child support for custodial parents. But that concern is at best misplaced. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, custodial parents receive about $3,700 in child support on average per year. Needless to say, the time afforded a custodial parent by giving up some parenting time would be more than sufficient for her/him to earn far more than whatever child support might be lost. The FLS no more cares about the financial well-being of custodial parents than the man in the moon. If it did, it would avidly support shared parenting.
And what of alimony reform? We’ve seen that the FLS opposes that too. One of their chief objections is to the provision in SB 668 that permits an alimony obligor to file for a downward modification if the recipient’s income rises 10% or more. The cry has concerned a putative woman who earns $10 per hour and receives a mere $1 per hour raise. Of course in such a situation, a downward modification would almost certainly not be sought and even more certainly not ordered. A buck an hour simply doesn’t make enough of a real-world difference to a person’s standard of living to warrant any change.
But more importantly, that provision is part of SB 688 to protect the very recipients about whom the FLS pretends to be concerned. As things now stand, any alimony payer can request a downward modification at any time. So SB 668 actually would reduce a payer’s opportunities to decrease what he/she pays.
But crazier still is the fact that the 10% provision was apparently included in the bill on the advice of - you guessed it - the Family Law Section’s Legislation Committee. The minutes of the January 28th LC meeting include this nugget: member Tom Sasser was asked about the 10% provision. He explained that the legislature had asked the LC what constitutes a “substantial change in circumstances” that would warrant a downward modification. “So the bill defines a 10% change as a substantial change in circumstances.”
In other words, the LC advised the legislature what judges typically require, i.e. a showing of at least a 10% increase in earnings, so on that basis the bill repeats the information given the legislature by the FLS Legislation Committee.
And now the LC is complaining about it. Simply amazing.
By March, the LC’s minutes report that SB 668 was “expected to pass the Senate and then go to the House.” In the House, a key representative had changed from an opponent of the bill to an avid supporter who was no longer speaking to the FLS’s paid lobbyist, Nelson Diaz. The LC was essentially conceding the defeat that soon followed.
So the Committee’s strategy turned to convincing the governor to veto the bill. Diaz assured members that “we’ll win the war by contacting the governor.” To that end, the FLS sent out its blast to members telling them to “flood” his office with calls and emails.
Support for SB 668 in both houses of the legislature is strong, but the votes weren’t one-sided enough to override a gubernatorial veto. That takes a two-thirds majority. So, like two years ago, it’s likely that shared parenting and alimony reform will live or die in Governor Scott’s office.
Just two days ago, Senator Stargell met personally with Governor Scott to give the final pitch for SB 668 (Florida Politics, 4/4/16). She reports that he gave no indication of his position on the bill. About that, the lobbyists for the FLS agree. They can’t read him either.
That makes it all the more important for supporters of shared parenting and alimony reform to match family lawyers phone call for phone call, email for email. In fact, we should exceed them by double at least. The bill is on his desk. He has 15 days to decide.
So call Governor Scott’s office at 850-488-7146 or email him at [email protected]
Do it today! The time is now.
National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization
National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved? Here’s how:
Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.
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