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Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Legislature 2000

Gay rights bills
die in House

One bill covered reciprocal
benefits and the other
housing discrimination

By Crystal Kua


This fall's elections could determine whether there's a future for two bills killed by the state House last night that would have affected gay rights, says a state senator who supports the measures.

"We could have a completely different Legislature," said Sen. Matt Matsunaga, co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We don't even know who's going to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee."

Matsunaga's comments came after the House failed to bring the measures to a floor vote last night.

One bill would have restored medical and insurance benefits to reciprocal beneficiaries including gay couples.

The second measure would have prohibited discrimination in housing on the basis of sexual orientation.

"The votes just did not appear to be there this afternoon," House Speaker Calvin Say said at the conclusion of yesterday's nine-hour House session.

Say said the 12 House Republicans and along with about 18 of the 39 House Democrats would have voted down the measures.

Religious and conservative groups were also opposed to the measures.

Matsunaga (D, Palolo) said he was surprised the House didn't pass the bills which were "watered down" versions of bills that didn't make it through last year.

On the housing bill, Democrats wanted churches to receive a blanket exemption from the law and the language in the bill didn't go far enough to ensure that, according to Say. "The caucus found out that it was a little too narrow in trying to carve out the churches."

Matsunaga said concerns last year about the bill applying to "public accommodations" led to that reference being deleted this time. The concern around reciprocal beneficiaries centered on what kind of effect the measure would have had on the public employees and small businesses, Say said. "The members were very much concerned about the financial impact."

The unmarried partners of about 60 public employees and retirees lost their health benefits at the end of June after the Legislature failed to extend the 1997 law providing coverage to domestic couples who cannot marry by law.

Matsunaga and committee co-chairman Avery Chumbley (D, Kihei), sought to restore those benefits to public employees and to apply the law to the public sector.

Matsunaga said the House apparently misunderstood the bill. The measure would require private employers to only offer -- not provide -- same insurance benefits to reciprocal beneficiaries if they're offered to married couples, he said.

He noted that the bills "sailed through" the Senate despite some conservative points of view there. "The House wasn't even able to pass a much scaled down reciprocal beneficiaries bill.

Despite the past public backlash against gay marriages, Say said the upcoming elections did not weigh in on the decision to kill the bills this session.

While Say thinks the issues will be back next session, Matsunaga didn't necessarily think so because it will depend on the makeup of next year's Legislature.

While these two measures didn't survive, other bills that made the cut included issues such as civil service reform, medical use of marijuana, educational accountability, mandating the use of seatbelts for backseat passengers under the age of 17, and requiring county police to conduct mental health and criminal history for registered firearms owners.

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