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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hawaii civil-unions bill quashed in House


By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Don Bentz, of Mā'ili, was sign-waving yesterday at the state Capitol with PFLAG-O'ahu and Pride Alliance Hawai'i.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The state House, conflicted by emotion and election-year politics, voted yesterday to indefinitely postpone action on a civil-unions bill.

The voice vote, which came after no debate, essentially kills the bill this session, since it would require a two-thirds majority to bring the bill back for consideration.

Gay rights activists in the House gallery shouted for a roll-call vote on the motion, and when lawmakers quickly moved to other items on their agenda, several screamed "Shame!" as they walked out of the chamber.

The state Senate approved a civil-unions bill last week that would give same-sex and heterosexual couples the rights, benefits and responsibilities of marriage under state law. The vote reached the two-thirds majority needed to overcome a potential veto, a signal to the House and Gov. Linda Lingle.

The House, which strongly passed a civil-unions bill last session that would apply only to same-sex couples, also wanted a veto-proof majority.

But only a majority of House lawmakers were prepared to vote for the bill yesterday, an indication that political pressure from religious conservatives, including thousands who rallied at the state Capitol earlier this month, had worked.

'WE'LL BE HERE AGAIN'

Judy Jordan, a retiree who lives in Kāne'ohe, was one of the dozens of opponents of civil unions in the House yesterday wearing white T-shirts for unity and red buttons that read "iVote."

"They see the buttons. I vote. So it's an election year and it will be put aside," she said. "But it will come back again, and we'll be here again, because we feel very strongly."

Dennis Arakaki, of the Hawai'i Family Forum, which organized the opposition to civil unions, said he believes lawmakers got the message. "The people are probably wanting them to focus on more pressing issues for now," he said.

Tambry Young, a co-chair of Equality Hawai'i, which favors civil unions, said she wished more lawmakers had spoken up when they had the chance on the House floor.

"All I can say is it's disappointing and we just hope, at some point, that integrity will prevail," she said. "I never think anything is over until it's absolutely over. I'm always optimistic."

Many gay rights activists were particularly angry that the House acted by voice vote, instead of a roll call where lawmakers would have had to make their vote public. The motion also had no floor debate other than a brief request by state Rep. Joe Bertram III, D-11th (Mākena, Wailea, Kīhei), to hear the bill.

Several activists stormed up to the fourth floor of the Capitol afterward to confront state House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Pālolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), in his offices.

Say later told reporters that a handful of lawmakers who voted for civil unions last session changed their positions, mostly because of political concerns, but also after another look at the substance of the issue.

Say said that since there was not a two-thirds majority to override a potential veto, he wanted to end the debate yesterday so lawmakers can concentrate on issues such as teacher furloughs and the budget deficit.

"It is dividing the community," he said. "And I just didn't want to have it linger on, as far as all the way through session."

SWITCHING FOCUS

Lingle said lawmakers did the right thing for the state. "I understand there are real strong feelings on both sides, and so people would like to just get it settled, and get it resolved," she said. "I just have felt from the beginning of this year that we needed to keep a clear focus on the economy.

"I'm glad we can just stay focused on that. There's still the issue of our schools and the furlough issue out there, so we have some really serious things we need to work on together."

Like last year, when the Senate amended the civil-unions bill on the second-to-last day of session, preventing a final vote until this session, many were upset yesterday that the House used procedural maneuvers to stall action on a bill a majority of lawmakers had publicly claimed to support.

The House leaders who were concerned that civil unions could lead to losses for Democrats in the November elections got what they wanted: an indefinite delay that did not expose individual lawmakers to another vote.

State House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, D-33rd ('Aiea, Hālawa Valley, 'Aiea Heights), the bill's original sponsor, said he was sad.

Oshiro said supporters of the bill chose not to force a debate on the floor because the outcome was clear after a private caucus. "I think people saw the writing on the wall and at that point did not see too much of a need for grandstanding or doing much else, since the motion spoke for itself," he said.

State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), one of the main supporters of civil unions in the Senate, said he was disappointed.

"Clearly, the votes were cast based on political ramifications and the coming elections," he said.

While Democrats were worried most about opposition from religious conservatives, there may be blowback from within their own party, where the platform backs equal access to rights, including marriage.

"Democrats win when they stand up for the principles and the values that they were elected for," said Doug Pyle, co-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai'i's legislative caucus.

Say said some of the activists who came to his office accused him of being a coward. He said lawmakers were not cowards, but sometimes have to make tough decisions.

"I just said to them, 'Please forgive me,' " he said. "At this point, for the past two elections, I've been a very strong advocate, and if you folks don't want to vote for me, so be it."