Senate trounces Domestic Partnership bill

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By Roger Snodgrass

A bill to recognize domestic partnerships fell well short of the votes needed to pass the Senate Thursday. The bill failed, 25-17.


The gallery was packed by partisans on both sides, who were advised to be there before 8 a.m. in order to get a seat and then had to wait nearly the full day for the bill to be heard and another hour before the vote was taken.


At one point during the debate President Pro Tem Tim Jennings, D-Chavez, Eddy, Lincoln & Otero, reminded the gallery that outbursts would not be tolerated.


It was one of the hardest fought issues of the session, having been narrowly defeated in the two previous years.


The bill would provide unmarried adult couples, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, with domestic partnership rights. They would receive benefits and responsibilities under state law, that would include such matters as hospital visitation, the right to make a medical decision for an incapacitated partner, the right to file a joint state tax return, and inheritance in the event that a partner dies without leaving a will.


State marriage laws whether excluding same-sex marriage or defining partnerships or civil-unions have faced continued legal tests even after legislative decisions have been made.


In fact, one of the main arguments was about whether this one would face a court challenge.


Opponents argued there were no protections in the bill that were not available to individuals under current laws.


The American Civil Liberties Union issued a white paper pointing out “several hundred rights and benefits provided by the State government that are not available to all New Mexican families.”


The study called attention to the expense of drawing up documents for inheritance, living wills, separation agreements, as well as rights, like receiving survivor’s Social Security benefits upon a partner’s death, which cannot be purchased.


Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, who sponsored Senate Bill 12, offered a somewhat diluted floor substitute for the proposed law that had narrowly cleared two Senate committees and squeaked out of a third on a technicality.


McSorley introduced it as a bill “that would establish a new civil right to allow people to enter into a contractual relationship, with some but not all the rights of marriage.”


Perhaps sensing the need for more votes, McSorley’s substitute scrubbed the bill of language that sounded like marriage and made the “not-a-marriage” distinction more explicit.


Gone were references to “spouses, former spouses, widows or widowers,” or mentions of “dissolution and annulment,” terms that are closely related to marriage laws and were in this legislation typically replaced by a simple reference to state law.


It was not enough to satisfy Sen. Bill Sharer, R-San Juan, who charged that McSorley had removed the name “spouse,” but had replaced it with code from the entire “marriage chapter.”


“This bill is marriage in disguise and a poor disguise at that,” Sharer said.


McSorley, in rebuttal, said Sharer’s point was a misstatement and that the section referenced was about “contracts.”


Sen. Rod Adair, R-Chavez and Lincoln, put his objections in constitutional terms, arguing that the rights that have been codified in the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment refer to “immutable characteristics that we share: race, skin color, religion, creed and national origin,” rather than modes of behavior or personal choices.


“Then there will be no limits in the way our constitution is tread upon,” he said.


The Associated Press reported that the Catholic Church which had been neutral on the issue, lobbied heavily this year.


Los Alamos resident Carl Newton participated in support of the bill with the Coalition for Domestic Partnership, which included such organizations as the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters. Newton said this morning that he watched the proceedings and attended a consolation gathering outside the Capitol after the vote.


He said his understanding was that the influence of the Catholic Church had made the difference.


“The Catholic Church has done a lot of good, especially with the poor, but Jesus never would have stood for what they did yesterday, in my view.”


Sen. Carlos Sisneros, D-L.A., R.A, Santa Fe and Taos, who changed his vote from pro to con after the tally was announced, could not be reached this morning to explain his votes.


On the “Roundhouse Roundup” blog this morning, Steve Terrell reported that he had just talked to Sisneros.


“He said it wasn’t a tactical move,” Terrell wrote. “He said he initially voted yes because he’d committed to the sponsor to do that. But when he saw the margin was as big as it was, he changed. He said his clergy was opposed and that had a big influence.”


Of Los Alamos County’s three senators, Sisneros joined Sen. Richard Martinez, Los Alamos, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe in voting against. Sen. Phil Griego, D- L.os Alamos, Mora, San Miguel, Santa Fe & Taos, voted for, after asking McSorley to itemize the changes that had been made in the substititute bill,


There was still an outside chance that the passage of a House bill might force the Senate to revisit the issue before the session ends in three weeks.