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Time is Running Out

Foot-Dragging Legislators Could Kill Civil Unions Bill

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The current state legislative session is set to end within the next month. Yet, in spite of the ticking clock, no one seems to be in much of a hurry to push forward any sort of legislation to help gays and lesbians--or, at least to counter the ill impacts of Measure 36. And, if legislators don't do anything in the next few weeks, the opportunity to do anything at all will need to wait another two years when the state's part-time legislature reconvenes.

Three weeks ago, the very same senators who sponsored Senate Bill 1000--a comprehensive civil rights bill for gays and lesbians--abandoned it. Saying that the bill had little chance to survive the legislative process intact, they decided to put all of their muscle behind just one part of the bill--the part that legalizes civil unions.

But that bill, SB1073, took more than a week to be introduced. Then it meandered through a subcommittee for another week before it was finally voted on by the Senate Rules Committee last Tuesday. Only now is the bill heading to the senate floor for a vote.

But nearly a week and a half after the committee took action--and with time quickly running out--SB1073 is still waiting to be scheduled for a vote on the floor. What's the holdup? As with all bills passed out of committee, it is undergoing a budget-impact analysis to determine what effect it will have on the state's coffers--even though it's expected to have next to none. Capital insiders expect the bill will finally come up for a vote at the end of this week or next.

Ultimately, SB1073 is widely expected to pass the Democratic-controlled senate. (Portland's Kate Brown, the Democratic majority leader, is one of the bill's sponsors.) But from there forward, its fate is less clear.

Passing the Republican-dominated House, controlled by rightwing leader Karen Minnis, will be much more difficult. If, say, Minnis wants the bill to languish until the close of the session, she can assign it to a committee that will simply table it. In that case, the opportunity for civil unions dies for the session and will have to be redrafted and reintroduced next session (two years from now). And, even if Minnis pushes SB1073 through to a House vote, there is very little optimism that it will pass as drafted.

Some insiders say that the key to convincing Minnis and the House to consider the bill is pressure from Governor Ted Kulongoski, who was instrumental in pushing forward SB1000 back in April. But since then, he has been completely silent on the issue of gay rights.

(Interestingly, the breakaway of SB 1073 from its original bill has also breathed life into some otherwise dying bills. While the original bill, SB 1000, included provisions to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment, and education, those considerations were ditched by SB 1073. Now, in an effort to pick up the pieces, SB 500, which would specifically ban such discrimination, has emerged as a late blooming hope. Three weeks ago that bill was finally assigned to a senate subcommittee and may have a last ditch opportunity for a vote.)

To many observers, the ticking clock of SB1073 has become an alarm bell. Insiders, however, have stressed that the urgency of the final few weeks can turn long shots into possibilities. As the days pass, lawmakers and their staffs become increasingly desperate to get their bills heard and go home, leading to deals that couldn't happen earlier in the session.

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