Hawaii Senate expected to pass civil-unions bill as early as today
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
State Senate Democrats have the votes to pass a civil-unions bill as soon as today, but are not certain they have the two-thirds' majority necessary to override a potential veto or whether they should amend the bill to correct a technical flaw.
The bill, which is scheduled for a final Senate floor vote today, would give same-sex and heterosexual couples the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as married couples under state law.
Locking down a two-thirds' vote — 17 of 25 senators — has become crucial because state House leaders have said a veto-proof majority would be among the factors they will consider if the bill moves back to the House.
The House passed a civil-unions bill last year that only applies to same-sex couples. The House came one vote short of a two-thirds' majority — with one Democrat absent — but leaders do not want to go through the exercise again in an election year unless there is a realistic chance the bill will become law.
Gov. Linda Lingle has not said whether she would veto the bill, but has urged lawmakers to put off the issue and focus on the state's budget deficit and job creation.
Internal vote counts late yesterday in the Senate showed a likely two-thirds' majority for civil unions, but Senate leaders would not commit publicly after predictions about the bill last session backfired.
"I think it's close," said state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nānākuli, Mākaha).
Majorities in both the House and Senate are on record in favor of civil unions as a measure of equality for same-sex couples. But the Senate, caught up in a procedural web after the bill deadlocked in the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee, was unable to pass the bill last session.
Some in the Senate believe another trap will occur this session if the Senate does not amend the bill to fix a technical flaw in the effective date, which is Jan. 1, 2010. A retroactive date, while legal according to the state Attorney General's office, is frowned on in state law.
The retroactive date could also pose administrative problems at the state Department of Health, which would develop rules and procedures for recognizing civil unions.
Politically, the flaw may be used by some in the House as a reason not to move the bill, or by Lingle as a pretext for a veto without addressing the underlying issue of civil unions.
"The intent is to send across a clean bill and not give anyone a reason to oppose it or for the governor to veto it," said state Sen. Michelle Kidani, D-17th (Mililani, Waipi'o), who plans to offer an amendment today to correct the date.
If the Senate amends the bill, it must wait another 48 hours for a final vote, pushing the debate into next week.
Although such a delay may seem minor, some fear that stretching out the vote may expose senators to more political retribution from religious conservatives who have promised to make civil unions an election issue.
If the bill is not amended in the Senate, the same debate will likely be repeated in the House, where lawmakers would have to choose whether to pass it as is and send it to Lingle, amend it and go back into negotiations with the Senate, or table it for the year.
Drawn-out negotiations over civil unions could be the worst outcome for majority Democrats in an election year, since Lingle and others have already cautioned that the attention should be on the budget and economic recovery.
State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimānalo, Hawai'i Kai), said Senate Democrats are making a mistake by bringing the bill back to the floor.
"It's extremely divisive. It's very polarizing. It's not something that should be at the top of the agenda for the Legislature," he said.
State Sen. Les Ihara, Jr., D-9th (Kapahulu, Kaimukī, Pālolo), said supporters of the bill believe it is important to act now to end discrimination.
"There are rights and benefits that same-sex couples — loving, committed, lifelong couples — would continue to be denied," he said.
While the bill would give same-sex and heterosexual couples who enter into civil unions the same rights as married couples under state law, civil unions would not be recognized under federal law or in many other states.
Civil unions would also not have the same social, cultural or religious significance that many associate with marriage.