Burlington Free Press
Gay-marriage bill on fast track
By Terri Hallenbeck, Free Press Staff Writer • March 6, 2009
Gay-marriage bill on fast track
MONTPELIER — Democratic legislative leaders said Thursday they plan to pass same-sex marriage legislation this session.
The bill is one of several House Speaker Shap Smith and Senate President Pro Tempore Peter Shumlin said will be among their priorities when the Legislature reconvenes March 17. Among the others were economic development, campaign finance and Vermont Yankee decommissioning bills.
“It’s become clear we can and should work to pass a bill promoting the equal right to marry this year,” Shumlin said. “We are capable of doing more than one thing at a time.”
Shumlin laid out a schedule that will fast track the bill through the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee will start taking testimony March 16 and will hold a public hearing at 6 p.m., March 18, he said. The committee is expected to send the bill to the full Senate by March 20, he said.
Shumlin and Smith expressed confidence that the bill would pass their chambers.
The Rev. Craig Benson of Cambridge, president of Take it to the People, which opposes same-sex marriage, will be among those leading opposition to the bill. He said he doesn’t think legislators have enough votes to override a possible gubernatorial veto in the House and that the move to take up the bill is simply to show supporters that they tried.
Gov. Jim Douglas opposes same-sex marriage legislation, but won’t say whether he’d veto a bill until after it comes out of the Legislature. “He’ll wait until the bill arrives,” spokeswoman Dennise Casey said, but she criticized the Legislature for diverting its attention from the economy.
The Senate, where Democrats hold a 23-7 majority, would likely have no trouble with a veto override, but the House would have a tougher time. Smith insisted he hadn’t counted votes to see if he had the two-thirds majority needed for an override. “I would hope and would expect we don’t need one,” he said.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Doyle, R-Washington, said he expects the bill to pass the House and Senate but couldn’t predict whether it would be by a veto-proof margin. He said, however, that he wouldn’t assume Douglas would veto the bill. “My guess is he hasn’t closed off the option of not signing it,” Doyle said.
Nine years ago, when Vermont passed the first-in-the-nation civil unions law, debate was heated. Democrats lost control of the House amid voter backlash, and many don’t want to repeat that scenario.
There were signs that Shumlin and Smith were keenly aware that the issue of same-sex marriage remains electrically charged. They announced plans to go forward with the legislation two days after town meeting, sparing legislators from being confronted with the topic by their constituents. As Shumlin spoke about same-sex marriage Thursday, he read from a prepared text, something he rarely does and did not do when discussing the list of other legislative priorities.
“We know that this issue can be one that unifies us or divides us,” Shumlin said.
Rob Roper, chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, said legislators should not be bringing up such a divisive issue when tough economic times call for unity. “They’ve got too many serious things they need to come together over,” he said.
Rep. Linda Myers, R-Essex, who said she leans against the bill, acknowledged it’s an issue that makes many legislators uncomfortable.
Votes for same-sex marriage don’t fall entirely down party lines. House Republican Leader Patti Komline of Dorset said she’d vote for the bill and the caucus as a whole would not take a position on it. Some Democrats are expected to vote against it. Myers said of a vote in the House, “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
The legislation the Senate Judiciary Committee will consider (S.115) is a newly introduced bill that calls for allowing same-sex couples to marry starting Sept. 1. It also raises the legal age for anyone to marry from 14 to 16. Shumlin said Vermont is among the few states that allow 14-year-olds to marry.
Shumlin said he thought creating civil unions was the right thing to do in 2000 because he didn’t think Vermont was ready for same-sex marriage. “In the years since then, the world has changed dramatically,” he said, referring to same-sex marriage laws in Canada, Massachusetts and Connecticut. “We’re no longer leaders, we’re followers.”
Benson called for a public referendum on the topic “rather than a controlled vote behind the oak doors at the Statehouse.”