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Bill Would Task 6 Republican Appointees With Creating 'Florida Guide To Healthy Marriages'

Ryan Dailey

Citing what they say is a tremendous public and private cost to Floridians from divorce, two Republican state legislators want to create a “Florida Guide to Healthy Marriages.” They’ve filed a bill to do so for the coming legislative session.

Republicans Senator Dennis Baxley, of Ocala, and Representative Clay Yarborough of Jacksonville want the Department of Children and Families to create the guidebook.

“The why is – we represent these people and we want to look for the best for them. And there is a public and private cost,” Baxley told reporters at the Capitol this week. “A human cost, and a financial cost. How – just a tool that will lead them to the right discussions and guidance.”

That’s how Baxley, the Senate sponsor describes his measure. It would create the handbook under the state Department of Children and Families. Baxley and Yarborough say divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth costs taxpayers an estimated $1.9 billion annually. That’s from a 2008 study that says costs are associated with things like the justice system, Medicaid, and the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. Baxley asserts the personal cost is often felt most heavily by women and children.

“Many times we wind up with two poor families, where there was one reasonably healthy family in terms of finances,” Baxley said.

Current state law requires couples to acknowledge they’ve read the Florida Family Law Handbook or other marriage-related information to get a marriage license. The Healthy Marriage Guide would be added to that list. But the Family Law Hanbook is quite different from Baxley’s proposal. It informs on things like prenuptial agreements, alimony, and how courts divide assets upon divorce. Baxley took a shot at the handbook during a press conference this week.

“The present handbook that we give has a few pages that are nice, then it goes into about 16 pages of how to get a divorce,” Baxley said of the document.

The Florida Department of Health reports about 77,000 divorces in the state in 2018. Unlike the current handbook, Baxley’s plan focuses more on interpersonal issues.

“At the point at which they are applying for a license, they would be given this manual for guidance,” Baxley said. “And it will deal with those issues that affect family success. Things like family violence, things like conflict resolution.”

Critics of the bill worry it’ll be put in place as a mandate. While couples are compelled to acknowledge they’ve read or accessed the Family Law Handbook or other materials – Yarborough says the guidebook he’s pushing would just be another resource.

“We’ve had that question about is it a mandate, is it something to take the place of that, and that is not going to be replaced” Yarborough said. “This would come alongside of it as supplemental information to what is already on statute with the handbook.”

Still, some feel introducing a set of guidelines for couples on how to interact with each other is an overreach on the part of the legislature. Orlando Democratic Representative Carlos Guillermo Smith ripped the Republicans’ bill on Twitter, writing: “So much for big government staying outta our lives and bedrooms.”

Others have raised questions about who will draft the guidebook. The existing Family Law Handbook was written by the Florida Bar’s Family Law section. But Baxley and Yarborough want a committee of six people, appointed by Republican leadership, to draft theirs. Baxley explained its makeup:

“The content of the marriage manual will be written by a committee appointed by, two each: It would be six professionals in marriage in family – two appointed by the governor, two by the speaker of the House and two by the president of the Senate.”

Baxley has sponsored the bill before. In prior years it has died during the legislative process.