Benton, Pridemore spar over same-sex marriage

Senate bill finally passes out of committee after attempts to stall it

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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See a video of the discussion between Sen. Craig Pridemore and Sen. Don Benton at the bottom of this story.

Vancouver-based state senators Craig Pridemore, a Democrat, and Don Benton, a Republican, butted heads while voting Thursday morning on whether to pass the controversial same-sex marriage bill out of committee. Despite opposition, the bill was passed out of the Senate Government Operations, Tribal Affairs and Elections committee on a 4-3 partisan vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against it.

Benton seemed intent on stalling the vote. He first asked that a referendum requirement for a public to vote to approve the bill be added to the legislation. He said the bill would have a significant, long-term effect on society.

Pridemore, the committee chairman, called Benton’s request “out of order,” saying that referendum requirements aren’t typically added to bills at this stage in the process. Opponents of the bill have said they plan to eventually add a referendum requirement to the legislation.

A referendum can’t be filed until after the bill is passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Opponents then must turn in 120,577 signatures by July 6.

When the senators were again ready to vote on the bill, Benton interrupted to ask whether a fiscal note showing the cost of the bill was available. Bills with a significant financial impact must also pass through the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Pridemore indicated that a fiscal note is being worked on, but that he did not think the bill would need to go to Ways and Means.

Another Republican senator on the committee, Dan Swecker of Rochester, tried to add four amendments onto the bill. Each amendment was rejected by a 4-3 vote along party lines.

Pridemore voted in support of the bill and Benton voted against it. The bill will soon be sent for debate on the Senate floor.

Senate Bill 6329, and its companion, House Bill 2516, both received hearings Monday. The House committee will vote Jan. 30 on whether to pass its version of the legislation out of the Judiciary Committee.

Apart from the label of marriage, domestic partnership benefits in Washington are nearly identical to marriage benefits. That includes, among other things, the ability to make medical decisions for an incapacitated domestic partner and the option to add a domestic partner to a family health insurance plan provided by an employer.

Those same-sex benefits end at the state line. The federal government, bound by the Defense of Marriage Act, doesn’t recognize domestic partnerships or same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples would receive none of the federal benefits of marriage.

Final vote secured

Before this week, it wasn’t certain the Senate would have the support to pass the measure, due to a handful of undecided Democrats. But on Monday, after the first public hearing on the issue, a previously undecided Democratic senator, Mary Margaret Haugen of Camano Island, announced her support for the measure, all but ensuring that Washington will become the seventh state to allow gay and lesbian couples to get married.

The state House already had secured enough votes to pass the measure, and Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire publicly endorsed the proposal earlier this month.

Same-sex marriage is legal in New York, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and the District of Columbia. Lawmakers in New Jersey and Maryland are expected to debate gay marriage this year, and Maine could see a gay marriage proposal on the November ballot. On Thursday, gay rights activists there announced they had collected enough signatures to seek a referendum. The Maine Legislature previously approved gay marriage, but it was rejected by a 2009 statewide vote, 53 percent to 47 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics