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Partnership Bill Stopped in Its Tracks

By Trip Jennings
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE— A bill to give gay and lesbian couples the same rights and responsibilities as married couples suffered a potentially fatal wound Saturday.
    By a 6-4 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled the Gov. Bill Richardson-backed domestic partnerships bill, meaning it cannot move to its final legislative stop, the Senate floor.
    Two Democrats— Sen. Lidio Rainaldi, D-Gallup, and Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española— crossed partisan lines to join the committee's four GOP lawmakers to table the measure.
    Richardson said in a prepared statement he was "extremely disappointed" and urged the Senate to get a vote of all 42 members on the bill.
    "This is a matter of civil rights and equity for all New Mexicans," the governor said.
    Sen. Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, who supports the legislation, said the committee vote Saturday likely killed the measure for this year's session.
    Supportive lawmakers have a couple of paths available to them to revive the legislation, but Sanchez saw neither of them as likely to happen.
    Opponents celebrated the possible demise of legislation that they view as codifying same-sex marriage.
    "This bill is nothing but a lawsuit waiting to happen," said former Lt. Gov. Walter Bradley, who helped organized the bill's opponents and thinks the new law would conflict with hundreds of others, already on the books, that are based on traditional marriages.
    Supporters said they were discouraged but not ready to give up.
    "The session's not over yet," said Alexis Blizman, executive director of Equality New Mexico. "But if it's not this year, we'll come back next year."
    Opponents will be on guard for any attempt to revive the legislation "until 12 noon on the last day," Bradley said, referring to the Legislature's constitutional adjournment time on Feb. 14.
    Under the legislation, gay and lesbian couples, as well as unmarried straight couples in a committed relationship, would be able to enjoy medical coverage through their partner's health insurance plan and would have earned the right to visit a partner in a hospital.
    They could also take family medical leave to care for a partner who is ill and earned property rights in a partners' pension and inheritance rights.
    Supporters, including some financial planners and attorneys, said domestic partnerships would help save thousands of dollars for gay and lesbian couples— as well as unmarried straight couples not related by blood.
    Instead of spending heavily to form trusts, the couples could derive the same benefits by entering a domestic partnership, which would cost a $25 fee paid to a county clerk processing the application.
    The Senate Judiciary Committee heard from both supporters and opponents Saturday before voting.
    "No married couple is going to get divorced because of this bill," said supporter the Rev. Stephen Furrer, pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe. "Nobody who is straight is going to become gay. But what will happen is more people will be able to celebrate their love."
    Rep. Nora Espinoza, R-Roswell, said the legislation undermined traditional marriage between a man and a woman.
    "Domestic partnerships is another word for marriage," Espinoza said. "We must protect the sanctity of marriage."
    LEGISLATIVE UPDATE
    ARTS SCHOOL: New Mexico would establish its first-ever residential school for the performing and visual arts under legislation heading to Gov. Bill Richardson.
    Students selected for the state-chartered school would pay for room and board, but the state would finance the high school. Private fundraising is to help students with rooming costs if they can't afford to fully pay those expenses.
    Supporters say the school will be in Santa Fe.
    MINE CLEANUP: The House has approved a proposal to pay for cleaning up contamination from abandoned uranium mines and mills.
    The measure (HB 342) would earmark money from taxes on future uranium mining and processing for a cleanup fund administered by the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.
    The proposed cleanup program would apply to sites in which mining and milling took place before July 2008. The House passed the measure on a 54-11 vote and sent it to the Senate for consideration.
    Opponents objected to the proposed taxes and questioned whether they might discourage uranium companies from resuming operations in New Mexico.