On April 29 last year, in the very last moments of the very last day of the 2010 Hawaii Legislature, the state House unexpectedly passed on a 31-20 vote House bill 444, legalizing civil unions.

The vote angered opponents of the measure, who argued they had been blindsided. Supporters, of course, were thrilled, as civil unions had been judged dead three months earlier when the House declined to accept the Senate’s amended version.

What followed was a dramatic buildup to HB 444’s veto by Gov. Linda Lingle and the elevation of civil unions as a central issue in fall elections.

What a difference a year makes.

Senate Bill 232, which was identical to HB 444 until amended by the House last week, smoothly passed the Senate Wednesday and was sent to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who has promised to sign the historic legislation — which happens to be the very first bill sent to the new governor.

Civil Beat compares then and now to learn how it all happened.

There are several key differences between the Hawaii Legislature’s 2010 session and the current one.

The most obvious is that Hawaii today has a governor who minced no words about how he felt about civil unions, first when he ran against Mufi Hannemann in the Democratic primary and then against James “Duke” Aiona in the general election, both of whom oppose civil unions (though Hannemann tended to dance around the issue whenever he was asked about HB 444).

Compare Abercrombie to Lingle, who was coy on how she would decide on HB 444, milking the drama that led up to her veto of the measure last July 7. Lingle’s administration actually put a clock on the governor’s official website to count down the moments until the veto decision, as if the civil rights of homosexuals were comparable to awaiting New Year’s Eve.

Another difference was the 2010 election.

In spite of the concerted efforts of conservative religious groups such as Hawaii Family Forum and the Hawaii Christian Coalition to target lawmakers on where they stood on civil unions — the Hawaii Republican Party did much the same — voters shrugged and sent those lawmakers back to office.

They included House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, who easily bested primary challenger Gary Okino, a Honolulu City Council member, devout Christian and outspoken opponent of civil unions.

A Swift And Open Process

Another difference was the bill itself.

While SB 232 was identical to HB 444 when it first passed the Senate on Jan. 26, it was amended by the House Committee on Judiciary to include recommendations by Attorney General David Louie.

SB 232 was not the strongest of civil unions bills this session; a separate Senate measure and its identical House bill were more comprehensive in addressing taxes and benefits. It is likely that the bill, once it becomes law, will be amended by future legislation to address issues such as adoption, workers’ compensation benefits and health and retirement benefits for surviving spouses.

But the House amendments made SB 232 more equitable legislation regarding the filing of taxes, dissolution of a civil union and its recognition of out-of-state civil unions in Hawaii.

Another difference between 2010 and 2011 is the hearing process for the bills.

HB 444 was actually introduced in January of 2009. It was heard in a lengthy and emotional hearing in House Judiciary, passed the House, and then went to the Senate, where the Judiciary Committee held an extraordinary 18-hour hearing.

Senate Judiciary split 3-3 on the bill’s recommendation. A month later a motion to pull the bill from committee and send it to the Senate floor failed.

Then, on May 7, 2009 — the last day of session — HB 444 was successfully pulled from Judiciary, amended on the Senate floor and passed. But it was too late to get it back to the House, so the measure carried over to 2010.

HB 444, of course, passed in the 2010 session, but it received no public hearing. Technically, it didn’t have too, but the lack of new hearings angered people on both sides of civil unions. And when the House voted to pass the bill on the last day of session, there was little public notice.

The Hawaii Business Roundtable, a group of leaders of the state’s major businesses, stepped into the fray, encouraging Lingle by private letter to veto the bill.

This year, things were handled differently.

The newly christened SB 232 was scheduled to be heard in Senate Judiciary just days after the session opened. Chairman Clayton Hee limited speakers to just 90 seconds of oral testimony, the hearing was televised on Capitol TV and SB 232 moved quickly to the House.

The televised hearing in House Judiciary on Feb. 8 was five hours — Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran allowed two minutes of testimony per speaker — but there were many more testifiers. Still, the bill passed by a solid majority that very night.

This time around, the Business Roundtable was quiet.

One thing that did not change much from 2010 to 2011, however, was how lawmakers felt about civil unions. The votes from members in both chambers were almost exactly the same year over year. The House voted 31-19 in favor this year, 31-20 last year; the Senate voted 18-5 this year, 18-7 last year.

A Different World

The last thing that was different for civil unions last year and this year was that the country has changed.

On Aug. 4, 2010, a month after Gov. Lingle vetoed HB 444, a California judged ruled that Proposition 8 — a 2008 ballot question that banned same-sex marriages in the Golden State — violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many legal observers suggest that Perry v. Schwarzenegger will ultimately be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Dec. 18, the U.S. Senate voted to repeal the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy prohibiting gays and lesbians to serve openly.

Perhaps local opponents of civil rights and gay marriage saw the handwriting on the wall. But the large protests over HB 444 that filled the Capitol Rotunda and lined Beretania Street with sign-wavers did not reach anywhere near the critical mass with SB 232.

One other note: By accident, the Senate confirmation of 1st Circuit Court Judge Sabrina McKenna to the Hawaii Supreme Court fell on the same day that the Senate made its final vote on SB 232.

The same Senate that split 18-5 over civil unions voted as one on McKenna’s nomination to serve as an associate justice.

After the confirmation vote, Sen. Hee asked McKenna and “her companion and life partner” sitting in the Senate gallery to rise and be recognized. The two women did, along with their children. The Senate and gallery erupted in wild applause.

Just minutes later, during debate over SB 232, Hee made reference to McKenna and her family.

“They now get the same entitlement as other parents,” said Hee.

When the vote came, the gallery stood in ovation.

The next event in Hawaii’s 20-year struggle over same-sex civil rights will come when the governor signs SB 232.

Word is that it will be in Washington Place and not the Capitol’s executive chambers, meaning the governor intends to invite a whole lot of folks to witness history.

“This has been an emotional process for everyone involved, but that process is now ended,” Abercrombie said after Tuesday’s Senate vote. “Everyone has been heard; all points of view respected. For me, this bill represents equal rights for all the people of Hawaii.”

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