Senate OKs bills to stymie gay benefits

Legislation sets up constitutional conflict

Posted: Monday, November 20, 2006

Members of the state Senate on Sunday followed through on what their counterparts in the House of Representatives did last week, continuing to advance two bills to fight employment benefits for partners of gay state employees.

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Facing a Jan. 1 deadline imposed by the Alaska Supreme Court to ensure employees in same-sex relationships get the same benefits as their heterosexual colleagues, the Senate Finance Committee approved on Sunday evening two bills aimed at thwarting that.

The Senate was meeting in a special session called by Gov. Frank Murkowski to deal with the controversial issue. The House already has approved the bills and adjourned.

One bill would bar the Commissioner of Administration, currently Scott Nordstrand, from adopting, drafting or filing regulations to implement the court order. The filing happened Oct. 15, Nordstrand said.

An earlier version of the bill included criminal penalties for taking such action, but the bill has been amended with that part out.

"It thankfully removes the criminal penalties," Nordstrand said.

The bill had earlier been retroactive to the date of the original Supreme Court decision, which some legislators said was unconstitutional. That has been taken out as well. The bill, should it pass, would now take effect 90 days after being signed by the governor.

In the House that bill was opposed by Reps. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, and Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau.

The bill was designed to put the commissioner in a no-win situation, Weyhrauch said. The court ordered him to implement the regulations that the Legislature barred him from implementing, setting up a constitutional conflict.

"It pitted the Legislative against the Judicial branches, and was inappropriate legislation and I could not in good conscience vote for it," Weyhrauch said.

That bill was approved by the House 22-10 last week, and approved by the Senate Finance Committee Sunday evening 4-1.

A second bill would set up a public advisory vote on April 3, 2007, telling legislators whether to amend the constitution to prohibit paying for same-sex benefits.

That was approved by the House last week, and by the Senate Finance Committee Sunday. If that bill is approved, and the public endorses it at the polls, legislative opponents of benefits for gay partners hope to use that vote to convince lawmakers to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex benefits.

That might be the only way to reverse the Supreme Court's order for same-sex benefits, according to some observers, such as Gov. Murkowski.

Sunday's session indicated the attack on same-sex benefits might face an uphill battle to get the required two-thirds majority in both houses needed for a constitutional amendment in 2008. Veteran Republican Legislator Con Bunde voted against the rules bill.

Later in an interview, he questioned trying to deny rights to a segment of the community. In the past voters have sometimes been "somewhat cavalier with the rights of minorities," he said.

Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, said he wondered why the advisory vote was being held on the same day of the Anchorage municipal elections. That's a day when more Anchorage residents are likely to go the polls, meaning the citizens there will have "more say than the rest of the state," he said.

The bill barring the rules is HB 4001, and the bill setting the advisory vote is HB 4002.

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