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July 29, 2005

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Volume 33
Issue 30

 
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Republicans seek to deny equal treatment for LGBT Oregonians
Republicans seek to deny equal treatment for LGBT Oregonians
"[A] number of legislators...believe that it is the most extreme political maneuvering that they have ever seen in their tenure in the legislature to circumvent a public debate and vote," said Rebekah Kassell of Basic Rights Oregon.

by Robert Raketty - SGN Staff Writer

Republicans in the Oregon House of Representatives dealt a huge blow last week to proponents of civil unions and non-discrimination legislation. In what is being called "the most extreme political maneuvering" in years, Republican members of the State Federal Affairs Committee and Republican House Speaker Karen Minnis gutted Senate Bill 1000, effectively killing it. The bill was intended to create civil unions for same-sex couples and bar discrimination against Gays statewide.

Minnis had already been accused by Democrats of obstructing the legislation by keeping it from coming to a vote, however in her most brazen political move to date, Minnis called a committee work session after giving only 37 minutes notice and held it during a lunch hour when both chambers of the legislature where not in session. The committee voted to remove the language from the bill that allowed for civil unions and non-discrimination based on sexual orientation in housing, employment and public services. Members of the committee voted to insert Republican backed language and sent the bill to the Budget Committee where it would be untouchable by Democrats.

"There are a number of legislators who believe that it is the most extreme political maneuvering to circumvent a public debate and vote that they have ever seen in their tenure in the legislature," said Rebekah Kassell, a spokesperson for Basic Rights Oregon, told the Seattle Gay News on Wednesday. "I think that there are a number of Republican legislators who aren't necessarily with us on the bill, but are not particularly fond of the methods the speaker used.

"It clearly signals that she knew what we knew - that if the bill came to a floor vote, it would pass. Not only would it pass if it came to a floor vote, but we even had enough votes to overrule her and force the bill to a floor vote over her objection."

Rep. Mary Nolan (D) agreed with Kassell and said that Minnis' maneuver was "underhanded" and an abuse of the House Rules. "Her job as Speaker is to schedule debates of bills, not to dictate how other Representatives cast their own votes," she said in a written statement. "The matter of civil unions and discrimination deserves a full and open debate on the floor of the House. The voters of Oregon are entitled to know where their representatives stand on these issues. It's not acceptable that one person, the Speaker of the House, should stand in the way and prevent the House from doing its duty."

Nolan introduced House Bill 3508 on Tuesday, which is similar to SB 1000, but includes "reciprocal benefits" for unmarried people who do not enter into a civil union or marriage. "This new bill is not a symbolic effort& We're giving the Speaker of the House one more chance to do the right thing," said Nolan. "This bill is one final call to the Speaker, asking her to schedule an up-or-down vote on a critical civil rights issue - the issue of civil unions and discrimination.

"We're not asking for the Speaker's personal vote for civil unions. But we are demanding the opportunity for the whole House to debate a matter that the Senate has already dealt with decisively. Each State Representative has the duty to vote his or her own conscience on how the state treats families."

The bill has enjoyed widespread support from Governor Ted Kulongowski and the Democratic controlled Senate. It had passed the Senate with a two-to-one margin. Kassell said it was necessary to abandon SB 1000 and begin anew with HB 3508 to ensure equal treatment for same-sex couples and the right to live free from discrimination be granted to all Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Oregonians.

"Senate Bill 1000 as we knew it no longer exists. We introduced a new bill yesterday, which is House Bill 3508, which is essentially the same bill as SB 1000, but also includes the proposal by our opponent," explained Kassell. "That proposal is very similar to Vermont's legislation, which also includes reciprocal benefits for roommates or whoever may want them. As a side note, not a single person has ever requested a reciprocal beneficiary in Vermont in the entire five years Vermont has had the legislation.

"[Vermont] threw it in there for the same reason we did; basically, to call the bluff of our opponents. They say they are really concerned with making sure that benefits are available to everyone, when in fact the real motivation behind that proposal is to sink our civil unions bill."

According to published reports, Minnis is considering bringing the gutted version of SB 1000 to the floor for a vote. However, Kassell says that the current language of the bill is "unacceptable" and will be "strongly opposed" by Basic Rights Oregon.

"Do we face the same challenges in the House with HB 3508? Absolutely," said Kassell. "If this is what the Speaker is going to do with the bill, then we are going to force her to do it over and over again. She will have to contend with us until the last day of the session. We plan to prove to the State of Oregon and her constituents how anti-Democratic she can really be and to what end she will go to stifle public debate."

Opponents of civil unions have far outspent Basic Rights Oregon and proponents of the pro-LGBT legislation. According to Kassell, the fight to pass civil union and nondiscrimination legislation in Oregon has been expensive and difficult, but a battle that must be won.

"Our legislature only meets every two years& Two years is the minimum we would have to wait. I think that if we were to go to court or pursue some other option, it is likely that it could be three to five years," she said. "If this legislation does not pass, we have to go back two years from now and try to persuade the legislature to once again prohibit discrimination and to create civil unions for same-sex couples and their families. Inevitably, as they have in the past and as they are now, people will be hurt by discrimination and a lack of protection for their families at a critical moment in need until this legislation is passed. We don't think it is in the best interest of Oregon to allow this kind of legal discrimination and lack of fairness under the law to continue any longer."
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