Civil unions now closer to reality after 18-7 vote


POSTED: Saturday, January 23, 2010

The long-stalled civil unions bill is on the move again, but both supporters and opponents say the controversy is not over.

House Bill 444 cleared the state Senate yesterday on an 18-7 vote. It now goes to the House, which supported the bill last year but is now not promising passage.

If the bill clears the House or a joint House-Senate conference committee and goes to Gov. Linda Lingle, its fate is unknown because Lingle has never expressed an opinion on the bill.

So lawmakers want a veto-proof majority in case Lingle rejects the bill.

House Speaker Calvin Say said the Democratic caucus would meet Monday to discuss options regarding the civil unions bill, adding that he was uncertain of what would happen.

But Say said he would only proceed if the House had the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto by the governor.

“;My personal recommendation is that if we do have the two-thirds, I would consider it,”; said Say (D, Palolo Valley-St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise). “;Because I don't want to go through the exercise of not having the two-thirds and she vetoes, and then it comes back to us to override, and I don't have the votes to override.”;

Thirty-four of 51 House members would be needed to override a veto. The House passed its version of the bill last year by a vote of 33-17 with one member absent. The Senate's vote was one more than what is needed for a two-thirds majority.

Say said he was unsure of how members would feel about the measure this year because of the upcoming elections.

“;In the political environment that we are in, a lot of them may not want to make a hard decision at this point in time because of the election,”; he said. “;It's so highly volatile.”;

Both Say and Rep. Blake Oshiro, the House majority leader, said they support the proposal but would leave it up to members to decide whether to move ahead.

“;I do think we need to hear from the caucus what they want done, first and foremost,”; said Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa).

More than 300 people, divided between opponents dressed in white shirts and supporters wearing rainbow paper leis, packed the Senate gallery to view the debate. Gladys Yee Pong, a retired state worker from Waianae, made her first visit to the Capitol to watch the proceedings and lobby against the bill.

“;It was something to hear them all speak and listen to their words, but it didn't change my mind in any way.

“;I couldn't understand why they want to change the law,”; Yee Pong said.

Also watching the debate was retired Associate Justice Steven Levinson, who in 1993 co-authored the state Supreme Court decision saying Hawaii needed a “;compelling state interest”; for denying marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

It triggered the debate for and against same-sex marriage that concluded with Hawaii voters in 1998 saying that the Legislature has the power to define marriage. The Legislature then voted to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

“;The Legislature is now living up to the responsibility the people gave them in 1998. It gave the responsibility to the Legislature to do what is right,”; Levinson said.

Another strong supporter, Sen. Gary Hooser, a Kauai Democrat running for lieutenant governor this fall, said after the vote that “;eventually the civil unions bill will be passed into law.”;

“;We sent a message to the House, the governor and the state that the Hawaii state Senate supports equality on this issue,”; Hooser said.

But others like Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kalaeloa-Makakilo), who first gained political prominence by leading the anti-same-sex marriage movement in 1998, said the controversy is not about “;civil rights, equal rights or benefits.”;

“;The ultimate goal of civil unions, same-sex marriage advocates, is societal approval and acceptance of homosexuality on an equal basis with heterosexuality,”; Gabbard said.

The political fallout from the bill has yet to be measured, although several lawmakers lost elections 12 years ago because of their support for same-sex marriage or civil unions, and the issue is now more divided.

;[Preview]    State lawmakers approve civil unions bill

State senators voted 18 to 7 to approve civil unions.

Watch ]


Opponents such as Lt. Gov. James “;Duke”; Aiona, who is running for governor, said the “;Senate is clearly at odds with the people of Hawaii.”;

“;Like other movements across the country, voters will have the final say on election day,”; said Aiona.

Democrat and former Rep. Dennis Arakaki, director of Hawaii Family Forum and an opponent to civil unions, says the issue will matter to voters.

“;I think it is going to have repercussions. Most people still support traditional marriage between one man and one woman.

“;There was a great uproar 12 years ago, and there may be one again,”; Arakaki said.


What's next?

HB 444, the civil unions bill, now goes to the House.

The House can hold the bill and not act, killing it, or approve the bill with the Senate amendments and send it to Gov. Lingle for her approval or rejection.

If the bill is vetoed, the House and Senate would have to vote with a two-thirds majority to override Lingle's veto.

The House could also disagree with the Senate amendments, go into a conference committee with the Senate and write a third version of the bill, which would have to be voted on by both the House and Senate before going to the governor.