State Senate poised for final vote on Hawaii civil unions bill
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
The state Senate could pass a civil-unions bill soon after the session starts later this month, which would put political pressure on the state House and set up a possible confrontation with Gov. Linda Lingle, who said yesterday that the bill was a distraction from the budget crisis.
A bill ready for final passage in the Senate would give same-sex and heterosexual couples the ability to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law.
"The bill is poised to be voted on," said state Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Mānoa, McCully), chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee.
Taniguchi said that while lawmakers will concentrate on the budget, they also have the capability to consider other bills, including controversial issues such as civil unions or restricting fireworks.
"I think we have the capacity to deal with a lot of issues," he said.
If the Senate takes action, the bill would move back to the House, where lawmakers voted last session for a different version that applied only to same-sex couples.
State House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Pālolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), said the House's position may depend on whether the bill gets a two-thirds' vote in the Senate necessary to override a veto, or 17 of the 25 senators.
Say said majority Demo-crats may not want to force a House vote on such a politically volatile bill in an election year unless it was apparent there was enough support to override a veto. The House vote on the bill last session was 33-17 — one vote shy of the two-thirds necessary in the 51-member House — but one Democrat was absent.
"All these factors will be taken into consideration when we talk to the members of the majority caucus," Say said. "My focus this year will be on the budget and the economic recovery of the state of Hawai'i."
Lingle, who has not indicated whether she would veto the bill, urged lawmakers yesterday to put off civil unions for another time and focus on job creation and economic recovery.
"They should not continue to discuss it this year," she told reporters at the state Capitol. "It's certainly something they could discuss in future years. But in the middle of the biggest economic crisis in Hawai'i's history, it is a most inappropriate bill to take up this year. They should put it on the side."
The House moved quickly to pass a civil-unions bill last session, but it stalled in a deadlocked Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee. Senate leaders at first suggested the bill would be pulled from the committee, then backtracked, clumsily letting the issue linger until the end of session.
On the second to last day of session, senators pulled the bill from committee, but then amended it to apply to both same-sex and heterosexual couples, preventing a final vote before the Senate adjourned.
Most of the political pressure last session was on the Senate, but it could spread to the House this session. Democrats who are up for re-election in competitive districts worry that religious conservatives who oppose civil unions will target them for defeat if they support the bill.
"It will be a distraction, because it's a very emotional issue," Say said. "You know, people have always said to me in the past that, during an election year, you don't want to address these social issues.
"And that's the political reality that we all face as elected officials."
State Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-41st (Waipahu, Village Park, Waikele), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers wanted to pass the bill last session to avoid election-year politics.
"That's why we really wanted to get it done last year," he said.
There is also a technical problem in the Senate version of the bill. The effective date is Jan. 1, 2010, which, while legal, could raise questions about whether the bill is flawed because it is retroactive legislation.
Lawmakers could amend the bill and change the effective date but, if not, it could be used as justification by Lingle for a veto without addressing the substance of the legislation.
Gay rights activists said yesterday that civil unions could have a positive impact on the state's economy, as couples pay license fees or vacation in the Islands to have their relationships recognized.
Jo-Ann Adams, an attorney and Democratic activist, said she believes the Senate and House will take action. "My sense is that they are going to move," she said.
Dennis Arakaki of the Hawai'i Family Forum had said last year that opponents may be willing to compromise, perhaps by expanding the state's reciprocal beneficiaries law. But compromise talks never happened, and religious conservatives have mobilized and plan to try to influence the September primary and November general election.
Organizers hope to have 24,000 people at a rally for traditional values at the state Capitol on Jan. 17. Opponents of civil unions famously wore red shirts last year, which became a symbol for faith-based activism at the Capitol. This year, people are being asked to wear white.
Arakaki said it would be a "very sad statement" if the Senate makes civil unions one of the first votes of the session. "It would speak volumes about their priorities," he said.Staff writer Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report. Reach Derrick DePledge at 525-8070.