Timid senators deny equal rights to isle minority


POSTED: Saturday, March 28, 2009

WHEN it came down to securing the civil rights of gay citizens or protecting the so-called integrity of their lawmaking process, state senators and their leaders chose process.

In truth, senators had framed a false choice. Members could not find the backbone to stand up for what they professed to support and took refuge in legislative maneuvers.

Facing strident opposition skillfully orchestrated by conservative and religious groups, the Senate refused to bring to the floor a vote on a civil unions bill that would have given same-sex couples the rights, privileges, responsibilities and benefits allowed to married couples.

Earlier this year, lawmakers said constitutional questions blocked them from foregoing their 36 percent pay raises, a financial sacrifice they might soon be asking of public workers.

In a similar vein, Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and her lieutenants said that although the state Constitution allowed them to pull the civil unions bill, which was held in committee, they didn't want to put up the measure for full Senate vote out of respect for “;the process.”;

That way, senators who voted against the recall motion can safely say they were protecting procedure, not rejecting the civil union measure, though the end result was really to avoid voting on the controversial issue.

It is difficult to sort out where the largest concentration of mendacity lies - whether senators had only been paying lip service to the bill's advocates, whether they were fervently dedicated to legislative mechanics or whether they sincerely thought it fruitless to pass a measure Gov. Linda Lingle likely would veto. (As for Lingle, she told a group of Star-Bulletin editors and reporters on the day before the Senate vote that she had been too busy with the budget to even read the bill.)

It is evident that after claiming support of what is, at its core, a matter of equality, senators became anxious about having to defend their decision and their jobs against a vocal conservative element with the ability to turn out voters.

The bill's proponents are still hoping that the measure will be revived, but Hanabusa says that's not likely. Prospects for 2010 are also doubtful. That would put a hot-button issue front and center in an election year when Hanabusa, whose political aspirations include the governorship, could face Republican Lt. Gov. James Aiona, who has strongly opposed civil unions as same-sex marriage in disguise.

House members who were courageous enough to approve civil unions were disappointed in their weak-kneed Senate colleagues. Rep. Blake Oshiro, the bill's sponsor, said it appears senators were more concerned about keeping their jobs than doing their jobs.

Few employers provide full-time pay for part-time work, as legislators enjoy, but next year voters might be inclined to hand out pink slips.