Senate panel approves domestic partnerships

By Barry Massey: The Associated Press

SANTA FE, N.M. — A proposal allowing domestic partnerships cleared its first hurdle in the Legislature on Wednesday when it narrowly won approval in a Senate committee.

The Public Affairs Committee endorsed the measure on a 5-to-4 vote and sent the proposal to another panel for consideration.

The bill will head to the full Senate for debate if it is approved by the Judiciary Committee, which could vote on the proposal later this week.

The legislation would give certain unmarried couples — homosexual or heterosexual — the same legal protections and benefits as married couples.

“I really believe this is a fundamental civil rights issue,” said Sen. Eric Griego, D-Albuquerque.

Opponents contended the measure would in effect legally recognize gay marriage.

The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops opposed the measure.

“I would ask you for the protection of marriage, as we know it,” said Deacon Steve Rangel, associate director of the conference, adding there was a “traditional and religious understanding that marriage is between a man and a woman.”

The state’s Catholic bishops previously had remained neutral on the legislation, but Rangel said that had changed because of court decisions around the country involving rights of same-sex couples.

Several hundred people packed the Senate gallery and others stood on the Senate floor as lawmakers listened to testimony and debated the domestic partnership bill and a competing measure.

The domestic partnership proposal has the support of Gov. Bill Richardson.

The legislation has failed in the Senate the past two years although it’s cleared the House. Proponents hope the measure has a better chance of being enacted this year because several new Democratic senators were elected in November, some replacing conservatives who had opposed the bill in the past.

Several Richardson administration officials testified in favor of the bill. Secretary of Aging and Long-Term Care Cindy Padilla said the measure would help elderly couples who decide not to marry because of worries that it could jeopardize their Social Security benefits or medical care.

Under the legislation, domestic partners would have the right to take family medical leave to care for a partner who is ill, the authority to make end-of-life decisions for a partner, property rights in a partner’s pension and inheritance rights.

Domestic partners also would have the same responsibilities as married couples in child custody and visitation issues and paying child support. The proposal will allow county clerks to issue certificates of domestic partnership to couples who register with them.

Ten states offer some form of legal recognition to same-sex couples, such as domestic partnerships or civil unions.

A sponsor of the bill, Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said “there is nothing in this bill that provides for a legal marriage.”

“The only thing it provides for is a domestic partnership,” said McSorley, a lawyer and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “There is only one way to be married and that is to have a marriage license.”

Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Dona Ana, said, “I don’t see this is as being about marriage at all. It’s about two people living together.”

The Public Affairs and Judiciary committees jointly met to hear testimony from supporters and opponents.

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, sponsored an alternative proposal, contending it avoided the “pitfalls” of domestic partnerships involving same-sex couples. The messier would allow two adults to enter into a contract — called a “contractual common household” — that granted certain joint rights such as inheritance, retirement benefits and the ability to make medical decisions for a partner.

Sharer emphasized that his proposal, unlike a domestic partnership, would not require a couple to have an intimate relationship. People also could not be married and enter into the proposed contract.

The Public Affairs Committee shelved Sharer’s bill.

Voting for the domestic partnership measure were Griego, Garcia and Sens. Dede Feldman, D-Albuquerque, who is the committee chairwoman; Cynthia Nava, D-Las Cruces; and Tim Eichenberg, D-Albuquerque. Opposing the bill were Sens. Vernon Asbill, R-Carlsbad; Mark Boitano, R-Albuquerque; Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs; and George Munoz, D-Gallup.

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The domestic partnership bill is SB12; the contractual common household act is SB144.

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On the Net:

Legislature: www.nmlegis.gov