Wednesday, April 11, 2007

House Cmte Passes Civil Unions, Anti-Discrimination Bills

Per the Statesman-Journal, as soon as next week there could be an historic vote on the Oregon House floor to grant civil union status for same-sex couples. The move has been blocked multiple times by House Republicans in prior sessions, despite going so far as to be passed 19-11 in the Senate last session. Ironically now, the Democratic/Independent majority in the Senate is 19-11; will civil unions get 2/3 of the vote in the upper chamber? SB2, the non-discrimination bill, has already passed with 21 votes; the House Elections, Ethics and Rules Committee considered that bill in an evening session running until nearly 10pm last night before passing it as well. Steve Law commented on the main amendment to HB2007--changing the name of the arrangement:
The bill enables committed same-sex couples to enter into “domestic partnerships” that grant them the same benefits offered to married couples under state law. The committee amended the bill to change the former term, “civil unions,” to domestic partnerships.

Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said domestic partnerships are better known and understood by Oregonians, and that terminology is consistent with the terms used by employers in the public and private sectors, and in California.

Supporters said domestic partnerships also may prove more appealing to voters than civil unions, if critics from the religious right seek to overturn the bill via a ballot measure.
I think it's actually kind of a sneaky change; contrary to what Kotek says, it really muddies the water rather than clarifying it--which is in fact what supporters hope to do, as they admit by suggesting the voters are more partial to the term.

Why? Because to them it doesn't necessarily have a homosexual union connotation; it simply means two people in a domestic partnership...which is Kotek's point: that's what gay couples are in, duh! And that's certainly true, but the aim is to convince voters that the change they're seeing is really exactly like laws we already have on the books, as oppposed to a major rewrite on the topic of non-familial committment rights. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for it--but let's be honest, it's a big change. Oregon would be either the second or third state to legislate in civil unions, I believe--and we're in the vanguard because it's a obviously big step for states to take, or more would have done it.

The right is going to howl and put their citizen's referral on the ballot, but I don't think the name change is going to have much difference; Oregonians already feel ambivalent-to-supportive of some kind of civil union, so the fact that it's finally passed isn't likely to enrage the better half of the electorate. It's just not the same kind of hot button issue as in 2004, and boring stuff like tax shelters and visitation rights doesn't move people to the polls like some vague threat of your church being forced to perform weddings for the state.

The other great thing for supporters is that a recall initiative either comes this year in an off election, or next year after the unions have a chance to go into effect and not cause cats and dogs to begin sleeping together or intermittent frog rain. They could call them Friends With Benefits Benefits, and it would still pass. 25 years from now we're going to wonder what people were thinking with Measure 36; we might as well put ourselves back on the road to sanity sooner rather than later.

Update, 10AM--
Forgot to mention something: during discussions on the Measure 37 hearings, I advocated a position whereby legislators who would be likely to see direct financial benefit should abstain from voting. I directed those comments particularly at folks like Roger Beyer, who has an M37 claim, and Larry George and Bruce Starr, whose parents have claims and could thus benefit from a transfer.

But I have to be consistent and apply the same logic to legislators like Tina Kotek, who is lesbian. HB 2007 would give Kotek and her (lovely; I saw her testify) partner a host of state benefits, some of them financial. Thus, I believe the proper thing for her to do would be to excuse herself from the vote. I'm less sure of SB2, given that it extends rights only insofar as they represent equality with everyone else. No one should have to abstain on voting to give themselves the right not to be discriminated against.

Of course, the rules haven't changed yet, and there is no reasonable mechanism by which to abstain. I'm just pointing out another example where it should happen, and I don't want anyone saying I excuse it in this case because I'm personally in favor of the bill.