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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lawmakers dodged vote, but to no avail

By David Shapiro

Hawai'i legislators have a reputation for being more concerned about protecting their political flanks than actual lawmaking, but it's hard to see how they did even that right in their clumsy handling of the civil unions bill.

House members on Friday shelved the measure to extend the legal rights of marriage to gay couples with a wimpy voice vote intended to avoid sticking their necks out in an election year.

After the vote, supporters of gay unions stomped out in anger while opponents accused lawmakers of scheming to approve the measure next year after the election passes.

Making both sides furious is an odd way to achieve political cover. Lawmakers protected their necks by leaving their okole hanging out to be kicked all over town in the coming campaign by two sides more determined than ever to make a point.

Opponents will fight to show that voters feel the same as in 1998 when they rejected same-sex marriage by a margin of more than 2 to 1, while gay-rights advocates need to prove at the ballot box that voter attitudes have mellowed.

It'll be a central issue in several races, including the contest for governor in which Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, the likely Republican candidate, has led the opposition to gay unions.

City Councilman Gary Okino, a religious conservative, is challenging House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro in the Democratic primary primarily over Oshiro's support for civil unions. Similar challenges will likely materialize in other legislative districts.

The political math is simple: If gay-union opponents knock off several legislators as they did in 1998 or even give them close calls enthusiasm for passing the bill in the next Legislature will diminish.

If lawmakers who most visibly supported civil unions hold their seats by comfortable margins, Democratic legislators who philosophically favor the bill will feel they have a mandate to move forward next year.

House Democrats hoped to avert election-year melodrama by passing HB 444 by a vote of 33-17 early last year. A majority of senators also supported the measure, but leadership got cold feet and stalled the bill after vocal community opposition organized.

Liberal senators tried to force a vote late in the 2009 session, but Senate President Colleen Hanabusa fended them off by having the bill amended to also include heterosexual couples in civil unions, making a final vote impossible before the Legislature adjourned.

Now that Hanabusa is running for Congress and likely needs the enthusiastic support of progressive Democrats to overtake Ed Case and Charles Djou, she backed a vote early this session and it passed the Senate 18-7.

But some of the House members who supported it in 2009, after hearing from opponents for a year, backed away and there were no longer enough votes to override a possible veto by Gov. Linda Lingle.

Despite lawmakers' efforts to conceal their positions with procedural votes and voice tallies, every one of them cast an unequivocal vote for or against along the way House members last year and senators this year and they'll have to answer for it.

Hanabusa gained little from reviving HB 444 in 2010 after squelching it last year. Supporters of civil unions still blame her for the bill's ultimate failure by not moving it to a vote last year when the politics were less heated, and opponents now have her on record as voting for it this year.

So for all the talk about political cover in an election year, it's doubtful that legislators achieved any from their two years of artless dodging that antagonized both sides.

A clear up-or-down resolution might have at least gotten them credit for having backbones.