By Barry Massey Associated Press

Vote to send bill to full Senate without recommendation clears deadlock

SANTA FE, N.M. — A proposal giving same-sex couples the same legal protections and benefits as married couples cleared a difficult legislative hurdle and is headed to the Senate for a vote.

The measure allows for domestic partnerships for unmarried couples, including gay couples.

The bill had stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month. The deadlock was broken Monday, Feb. 16 when the committee voted 6-5 to send the bill to the Senate without recommendation whether it be approved or rejected.

Sen. Bernadette Sanchez, D-Albuquerque, cast the deciding vote. She has been considered a likely opponent of the legislation but said she wanted all senators to be able to debate it.

She was absent from a committee meeting earlier this month when the measure bogged down on tie votes and supporters couldn’t muster the votes to advance the proposal.

"This probably needs to go to the floor for a full hearing," Sanchez said in explaining her vote Monday, adding that there are "benefits and consequences of us doing this."

She noted that some courts, including in California, have legalized same-sex marriage. Voters in California last year voted to ban gay marriage, overturning a state court ruling. However, there are several pending legal challenges to the California ballot initiative.

In New Mexico, a domestic partnership measure narrowly passed the House last year but failed in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This year, supporters adopted a new strategy of trying initially to get the bill through the Senate. They hope that the election of several new Democratic senators will improve the proposal’s chances for approval.

Opponents contend the domestic partnership measure will in effect legally recognize gay marriage. Supporters say the legislation will provide unmarried couples — regardless of gender — with protections and legal responsibilities given to married couples, including rights involving insurance coverage, child support, inheritance and medical decision-making.

The New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes the measure but the measure is supported by Gov. Bill Richardson and groups including the American Civil Liberties Union.

Richardson acknowledged Monday that some lawmakers feel politically and morally torn about the issue.

"I feel strongly that it’s a matter of human rights and civil rights," Richardson said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We should strongly support it and I’ll work very hard to get it done."

Supporters rallied at the Capitol several hours before the committee voted.

"If we don’t get the bill this year … we’re going to be back year after year. We’re not going to go away," said Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for Equality New Mexico.

Voting to send the bill to the Senate, in addition to Sanchez, were Democrats Cisco McSorley, the committee chairman; Majority Leader Michael Sanchez of Belen, Linda Lopez and Tim Eichenberg of Albuquerque, and Peter Wirth of Santa Fe.

Voting against the bill were Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, and Republicans Clinton Harden of Clovis and William Payne, John Ryan and Sander Rue, all of Albuquerque.

Associated Press writer Deborah Baker contributed to this report.
The domestic partnership bill is SB12.
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