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Budget crisis complicates LGBT 2009 legislative agenda
Budget crisis complicates LGBT 2009 legislative agenda
by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

While the state's budget crisis will take center stage in Olympia this year, new domestic partnership legislation is also on the agenda, state lawmakers tell SGN. The Legislature is also reviewing anti-bullying legislation passed in 2002.

"Our central focus as far as LGBT issues are concerned will be completing our work on domestic partnerships," Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-43) told SGN. "In other words, providing parity with married spouses." Washington State's Domestic Partnership Bill was signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire on April 21, 2007, and went into effect on July 22 of the same year. Additional domestic partnership rights were added by the legislature in 2008.

"It's our intention to cover all domestic partnership issues this year," Pedersen told SGN, "but it's entirely possible we'll have to come back and clean something up later. Maybe it will turn out we missed something, maybe there will be interpretations that are not what we intended."

"After this session we should be at the point where California and Oregon couples are," Pedersen continued, "with similar rights to civil unions, in New Hampshire for example." California's domestic partnership law was the first granting rights to same-sex couples without court intervention. It took effect in 2005. Oregon's law took effect in 2008, after a federal court removed an injunction delaying its implementation.

"It's not marriage," Pedersen said, "but it is an increase in our rights, and it's an opportunity to educate other legislators about marriage." The strategy adopted by Pedersen and the other openly Gay members of the state legislature has been to legalize "domestic partnerships" with enumerated rights, add incrementally to the rights available to same-sex couples over several legislative sessions, and use the process as a way to do ongoing political education about marriage equality.

The final draft of this year's domestic partnership legislation has not yet been filed, but Equal Rights Washington Advocacy Director Josh Friedes predicted that "the domestic partnership bill will drop by the end of January. The final details are being worked out now."

One of the challenges in writing the new domestic partnership legislation is the sheer number of rights denied to same-sex couples, according to Pedersen. "People haven't realized how much is left. There are 300 rights we have to write into law. That's 2,000 pages of text. It's just not possible to introduce legislation like that, so we're looking at more streamlined ways of achieving the same results."

ERW's Friedes also told SGN, "You will see another marriage bill filed. For the first time, you will see a hearing on the marriage bill." Committee hearings are normally the first step in bringing up new legislation for a vote. Now Senator, and formerly Representative Ed Murray (D-43) regularly filed bills to legalize same-sex marriage, but none was ever scheduled for hearings.

"There will be a marriage bill with Rep. Moeller (D-49) and Sen. Murray as prime sponsors," Pedersen confirmed. "I'm not sure whether we'll have hearings or not. We could have them if we wanted, but it's not clear if that would be strategic. There needs to be a lot more conversation on this before we go forward with hearings."

Pedersen is chair of the State House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over marriage and domestic partnership legislation and would be the committee holding hearings on any marriage bill. "Sen. Murray and I will be working closely on this," he says. "I spent a couple of hours with him on Tuesday, and I talked to him twice the day before."

Rep. Jim Moeller, another openly Gay member of the legislature and the prime sponsor of the marriage bill, told SGN he favors hearings on the measure. "If there's no hearing it will never come up for discussion," he said. "That's why you have public hearings, so you get public discussion. We should invite the public and see who shows up."

"I talked about this with the Speaker [Frank Chopp, D-43]," Moeller continued, "and I don't have a strong commitment for a hearing, but I don't see why we wouldn't have one."

Even if there is a hearing on marriage equality, neither Moeller nor Pedersen hold out much hope that a marriage bill will pass this year. "I don't see the votes even in our own [Democratic] caucus," Moeller said. "I think we can get there in a couple of years. We need to do more education on why marriage is important and why the word is important. When you say you're married, people know right away what you're talking about. If you say you're domestically partnered, no one is sure what you mean."

The political challenges to new domestic partnership laws center on the state's budget crisis, according to Pedersen. "There are pieces that will have a fiscal effect on the state," he told SGN. "For example, statutes that affect the pensions and other benefits of state employees and their partners & or property transfers that might affect the estate tax. That's an issue of timing, not whether the state will receive the revenue in the end."

"Our colleagues have a commitment to equality," Pedersen continued, "but how much willingness do they have to see this fiscal impact on the state? Possibly we'll have to delay the effective date of the legislation [to give the state time to resolve its fiscal issues]."

"We will keep up the pressure to move forward to full equality," ERW's Friedes promised SGN. "The economic crisis should not be used as a justification for denying equality. We can't allow the budget to be balanced on the backs of the LGBT community."

The legislature will also review the effectiveness of the Anti-Bullying Bill passed in 2002, according to Marko Liias (D-21). Liias is leading the review in the House of Representatives and will be the prime sponsor of the resulting legislation. "We're looking at ways to provide safer schools and a more tolerant and respectful community," he told SGN.

"We're still drafting the legislation," Liias continued. "It will be done in a couple of weeks. I'm meeting with my House colleagues, and of course with Ed [Murray], who's been such a champion of the Anti-Bullying Bill."

"There needs to be more consistency in applying existing law," Liias believes. "Not all school districts use the WASDA [Washington Association of School District Administrators] standards. There needs to be better parental notification that these policies exist, so people can make use of them. There also needs to be a longer term discussion about how we get these ideas into the classroom and develop tolerant school communities."

"The goal is to pass something this year," Liias says, but he cautions that the state's budget problems also impact safe schools legislation. "It's a frustrating situation. Part of it is going to be teacher training, and part is community outreach. All of that costs money."

All the legislators interviewed by SGN expressed frustration that the state's $7-8 billion budget shortfall will make it more difficult to address the needs of their neediest constituents. "In my opinion, these are not even problems of our own making," Liias said. "They're the result of decisions made elsewhere."

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