Unmarried couples bill stalls again

By Steve Terrell

A domestic partnership bill on Monday fell short of the votes it needed to clear a state Senate committee.

The tie vote meant the Senate Judiciary Committee remains a roadblock for backers of legislation allowing unmarried partners in New Mexico — same-sex and otherwise — many of the same rights and privileges as married couples.

Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Equality New Mexico, a gay-rights organization, called the vote “a temporary setback” and wouldn’t predict whether domestic partnerships could be passed in the current legislative session.

However, she told the Associated Press, “We need one more vote in that committee to get it out, and we don’t think we can get it.”

The bill required a majority of committee members to favor a “do pass” motion before it could move on to the Senate floor. However, the panel split five to five on Senate Bill 12, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque.

Eric Witt, a legislative liaison for Gov. Bill Richardson, who supports the bill, said the governor will be “visiting with legislators who don’t currently support the bill” in an effort to get them to change their minds.

Supporters say domestic partnerships is a question of human rights. Opponents say it’s the first step toward same-sex marriage.

“To me, it’s bait and switch,” said Kevin Haney, pastor of Word of Life Baptist Church in Rio Rancho, who lobbied against the proposal. “They’re using one name, but really meaning something else.”

Some domestic-partnership supporters said the push might now go to the House, where Rep. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, is carrying a similar bill, House Bill 21.

But that bill eventually would have to go back to Senate Judiciary.

Five Democratic senators — Sens. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, Michael Sanchez of Belen, and McSorley, Linda Lopez and Tim Eichenberg of Albuquerque — voted to give SB12 a do-pass recommendation.

The four Republicans on the committee — Sens. Bill Payne, John Ryan and Sander Rue of Albuquerque and Clint Harden of Clovis — were joined by Democrat Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, in voting no.

Another Democrat, Sen. Bernadette Sanchez of Albuquerque, who missed Monday’s vote, initially told a reporter that she would have voted no on the bill, but then corrected herself and said she didn’t know. Moments later, she went back to her original answer.

“Because that’s what my constituents want,” she said.

Sanchez entered the committee room only moments after the vote. She denied “taking a walk” or purposely missing the vote, saying she had to answer two important phone calls.

Siegle said at a rally a few hours before the vote, “This bill is for everyone. It’s for heterosexuals, it’s for gay people, it’s for seniors, it’s for the disabled.” But she said those against it are “opposing because of us, because of gay and lesbian people.”

After the vote Siegle said some lawmakers fear voting for domestic-partnership bills would hurt them in the next election. But she pointed to state Rep. Kathy McCoy, R-Cedar Crest, who voted for domestic-partnerships in a previous legislative session and later defeated two Republican primary opponents who campaigned against her on that issue. “Nobody has lost an election for supporting this bill,” she said.

Siegle noted she and others worked 12 years on a bill banning discrimination against gays and lesbians in employment or housing before that finally passed. “This is only the third year for domestic partnerships,” she said. “I’m in it for the long haul.”

The committee room Monday was filled to capacity with supporters and opponents of SB12. However, there was no discussion on the bill because the Judiciary Committee participated in a joint meeting last week with the Senate Public Affairs Committee in which senators heard 45 minutes of testimony from both sides.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.