See if you can follow the logic of this leadership: First, state senate leaders introduce SB1000, a bill that would bring about civil unions and protections for gays and lesbians against discrimination. So far, so good, right?
But then state senators balked, splitting the bill into two parts--SB1073 would bring about civil unions, and another would provide legal protections in housing and employment issues. Sponsors claimed this split would make it logistically easier to pass a civil unions-only bill through a Republican-controlled House--and that the anti-discrimination piece needed some cumbersome amendments. However, many civil rights supporters felt justifiably insulted, claiming the split demonstrated a massive lack of faith in gay and lesbian equality. After all, hundreds had shown up in April and May at the state legislature to voice support for SB1000.
For the following month, the new bill, SB1073, languished. Then, late last week, in an announcement that shocked supporters and opponents alike, the state senators said they would now scrap SB1073 and return to the original plan--that is, revive SB1000 and try to push through the comprehensive bill. In the meantime, this flip-flopping has wasted a month of valuable time (the legislative session wraps up in a week or so) and showed a level of indecision that would make the Keystone Cops appear organized.
While the reemergence of SB1000 is a return towards supporting some semblance of equality, it also represents yet another stage of waffling by senate leadership. Last month, the Senate Rules Committee--headed by Portland's Kate Brown, one of the sponsors of SB1000--chose to ditch the anti-discrimination half of the bill and pass a civil unions-only bill, SB1073. That bill then was sent to go through a lengthy and mandatory fiscal impact study before it could be decided on the Senate floor--all while SB1000 languished in committee.
So why would the Rules Committee change strategy now, after showing a lack of commitment to the idea of combining the two bills in the first place? Basic Rights Oregon claims it's because their supporters made enough phone calls, and some legislators have said there was too little time to work on a separate anti-discrimination bill. The cynical view is that it became evident that no real civil unions bill has a chance of passing through the House--no matter how watered down--leading the senators to shift from pragmatism to political symbolism.
What's especially troubling about the legislature's failure to act quickly and decisively on equal rights is the context of the current political environment. With the passage of Measure 36 and the judicial annulment of more than 3,000 same-sex marriages, civil unions are the closest gays and lesbians in Oregon will get to marriage equality for at least two years, when the state legislature reconvenes. Oregon has a reputation--deserved or not--for being on the forefront of gay and lesbian rights. But while lawmakers in Salem were sitting on their hands, the legislature in Connecticut--Connecticut!--managed to approve a civil unions bill similar to the system that has been in place in Vermont for years.
Moreover, the inability to stand behind one bill is no way to exhibit leadership. After all, how are the "progressives" going to convince anyone that civil unions are a good idea if they themselves don't seem fully sold on it?