Measures share same long-term goal, but that’s it
By Kyle Johnson
Herald Staff Writer
Mitchell Sanderson’s Shared Parenting Initiative would require “equal time sharing by the parents” in custody cases unless one of the parents is found to be unfit, using current state standards. It also would require parents to develop a joint parenting plan outside of court, with the court fulfilling this obligation only when the parents cannot come to an agreement, and child support payments would be no greater than “the actual cost of providing for the basic needs” of the children.
The other initiative includes similar requirements, but also would address domestic violence cases, require prenuptial agreements for all marriages, allow judges that do not follow the measure to be sued by parents and create a statewide elected position of Family Advocate to work for further change to the system. It also would eliminate “spousal support” payments and limit child support payments to no more than 25 percent of “actual and normal current taxable income,” in addition to severely limiting penalties for nonpayment of child support.
Supporters of both measures are busy gathering the required 12,844 signatures by Aug. 8 to place the proposal on the November ballot.
Sanderson and Roland Riemers, chief author of the family measure, ran for governor and lieutenant governor in 2004 on the Libertarian Party ticket but have split forces for this issue.
“(Sanderson) decided to just focus on the shared parenting part, but I don’t agree with that. If you just go in with one aspect, the courts will ignore it,” said Riemers, chief author of the family initiative. “He’s going his way, and I’m going mine, that’s all.”
Sanderson doesn’t view the difference as amicably, however, saying that Riemers is a “dark cloud” that he wanted nothing to do with.
“Our initiative is common-sense. His is asking for everything, and the kitchen sink,” he said. “He wants to sit and play games with the courts, and we want to make a difference.”
The measures have been the target of controversy from their inception, as opponents say the children involved in these situations would be worse off as a result.
“There’s maybe a law or two that needs tweaking. But you don’t take and throw the whole wheel in the garbage just because of one broken spoke,” said Robert “Tork” Kilichowski, the secretary of opposition group Concerned Citizens for Children’s Rights.
The group says that shared parenting is the best outcome for the parents, but this may not always be true for the children. Kilichowski also criticized the measures’ requirement of parents developing their own custody plan outside of the courts.
“If the parents could cooperate and get along to make big decisions like this on their own, than they probably wouldn’t get a divorce in the first place,” he said.
Another argument of the opposition is that these measures, if passed, would put the state’s child support laws out of federal compliance, making North Dakota ineligible for more than $70 million in federal child support and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds over the 2007-2009 biennium.
Mike Schwindt, child support enforcement division director for North Dakota, confirmed this statement.
If one or both initiatives garner the signatures for ballot placement, a fiscal impact study required by state law would be done at least 30 days before the election.
Sanderson and Riemers both said the opposition’s stance is based more on misinformation and lies than on the initiatives themselves.
“Shared parenting is something that the parents would work out, but it does not mean there has to be a 50-50 split in time in all cases,” said Sanderson, a view that Riemers also said about his measure. “Whatever is best for the kids, that’s what the parents would do.”
Both also disputed the claim that North Dakota would lose federal funding if a measure is passed, saying this is a lie.
“If any state is found to be out of any federal compliance, they are only penalized (a few percent) that first year, and they are given time to get back in compliance,” Sanderson said. “This is a false, misleading, flat-out lie to scare the public and the media.”
Riemers said that many of the measures’ requirements already are in state laws, but are simply ignored. For this reason, the chances of North Dakota falling out of federal compliance are slim, he said.
“And you know, even if we lost that money, what’s more important to you? Are a few federal dollars worth more than the best interests of our kids,” Riemers said.
Riemers said the media has done the most damage to his measure so far by reporting “things that aren’t true.”
A common assessment of his initiative is that it would require prenuptial agreements for all marriages, eliminate penalties for nonpayment of child support and require children to maintain contact with their parents even if one of the parents is abusive.
Riemers said that the prenuptial agreement would be “whatever the couple wants it to be,” and is just intended to make the couple think before agreeing to share everything. It also would remove the “financial incentive” from divorce, making these cases more agreeable, he said.
He disputed the claims about the child support aspects of the measure, saying they are not true.
“I’m not saying there’d be no punishments, I’m saying we wouldn’t lock all these people up. You could still take the money out of paychecks and things like that, but we would quit sending people to debtor’s prison,” Riemers said.
The measure says that a nonpaying “obligor” can face legal action if their “failure to support has resulted in serious child neglect or abuse.”
Riemers also said the domestic violence concerns that have been used against the measure are overstated. The measure would make domestic violence more difficult to prove, and would bar prior domestic violence convictions from being used to withhold custody without a “showing by clear and convincing evidence” that the parent poses a threat to a child.
While criticism has come mainly from outside forces, Sanderson and Riemers have also criticized the other’s ballot measures.
Riemers said the current bias against males in the courts will not go away unless “all sides” of the issue are addressed.
“Roland’s wrong about that. Everything is there for a reason. What we’re trying to do is knock the door down,” Sanderson said. “More would need to be done later, but this is a good start.”
Sanderson said Riemers’ measure contains good ideas but tries to do too much and is unlikely to be approved by the voters.
“Things like spousal support and judicial immunity, they definitely need to be looked at. And I think our government should have an office of Family Advocate,” he said. “But this is just too much.”
Sanderson also said the cost would be too high for Riemers’ measure, which would allow a jury trial in any legal action that affects “any family right to children, home or property” for more than 30 days. The position of Family Advocate would also require a minimum of $1 million per year.
Riemers said the added cost of his measure would be minimal because most people won’t choose a jury trial, and divorce and custody cases would have less conflict and take less time.No rush
Riemers has collected more than 4,000 signatures for his initiative to date, nearly 9,000 signatures short of the requirement. He said there is a chance that enough petitions will be returned in time, as more than 20,000 have been handed out.
Riemers has until April 10, 2007, to collect the required signatures for the measure to be placed on the 2008 ballot.
More than 11,000 signatures have been gathered for Sanderson’s measure so far, making it more likely to be eligible for the fall ballot. Sanderson said he hopes to collect about 1,000 extra signatures to ensure approval.
“But it wouldn’t hurt my feelings too much if we had to wait a little bit to get this on the ballot. It would just give us some time to prepare more,” he said.
If both measures make it to the ballot and are approved by the voters, conflicting portions could be amended by the state Legislature, Riemers said. Deputy Secretary of State Jim Silrum said that according to the state constitution, the more likely scenario is that the measure with the most votes would go into effect.
Johnson is a student intern from UND. Reach him at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or firstname.lastname@example.org.