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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 29, 2010

Civil-unions bill at pivotal point

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Calvin Say

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State House Democrats will meet in private caucus this morning to decide whether to bring a civil-unions bill to a vote or whether to indefinitely postpone action this session.

Private vote counts in the House last night found that barely a majority of lawmakers now support the bill, well short of the two-thirds state House Speaker Calvin Say said he wanted to show that the House could override a potential veto.

"At this point, the vote looks razor-thin close," said state House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, D-33rd ('Aiea, Hālawa Valley, 'Aiea Heights).

The state Senate approved a civil-unions bill last Friday that would give same-sex and heterosexual couples the ability to enter into civil unions and receive the same rights, benefits and responsibilities as marriage under state law.

Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Pālolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), set a deadline for today to announce how the House would proceed after the Senate reached the veto-proof threshold . Say and other lawmakers have said they wanted to move quickly so civil unions do not become an emotional distraction in a session likely dominated by the state's budget deficit.

The House passed a civil-unions bill last session 33-17 that applies only to same-sex couples, but support has been slipping.

House leaders could recommend in caucus that action on the bill be indefinitely postponed, which would then require a procedural vote on the House floor. If the procedural move passes, it would take a two-thirds' vote to bring the bill back for consideration, likely killing it for the session.

A move to indefinitely postpone action may bring some closure. As it stands now, any lawmaker at any time during the rest of the session could make a motion to agree to the Senate version and trigger a floor vote on the actual bill that many lawmakers have sought to avoid in an election year.

Religious conservatives have warned that they will target candidates who vote for civil unions for defeat in the September primary and November general election, while gay rights activists could retaliate against lawmakers who voted for civil unions last session but change their minds under pressure.

State Rep. Tom Brower, D-23rd (Waikīkī, Ala Moana), said lawmakers are divided, with some simply wanting to vote their conscience and others trying to gauge how their districts want them to vote.

"This has been the most complex and the most emotional issue," he said. "It seems that the majority members are really split on this."

Others, speaking privately, said behind-the-scenes negotiations have had little to do with the merits of civil unions and have focussed instead on the political exposure of acting on the bill in an election year.

State House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, R-32nd (Lower Pearlridge, 'Aiea, Hālawa), said majority Democrats should not bring the bill to a vote.

"The public has been very clear about not wanting this bill to advance," she said. "I think they don't want to gamble."