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Thursday, October 23, 2014         

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Civil unions: The road ahead

By Vicki Viotti

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INTRODUCTION

The passage of Hawaii's civil unions bill stirred reactions throughout the islands, not all them arising from the same-sex issues themselves. Some were more prosaic, legalistic or even logistical concerns. A range of questions came up.

» From couples: How soon after the law takes effect Jan. 1 can we schedule our ceremony? What happens with the reciprocal beneficiaries legal protections we have now? Will the situation for the kids change?

» From business executives: What will this mean for our company's benefit costs?

» From tour agencies: What do we tell prospective visitors, ready to tie the knot, when they call?

» And from some mildly panicked vital-statistics staffers: How will we ever keep up with all the extra work?

Janice Okubo, spokesperson for the state Department of Health, has heard from them already, and they're already taking calls from couples. The trouble is, they're swamped with marriage applications as it is.

"We are really challenged with resources," she said. "Because of the furloughs, there's a two-month delay issuing marriage licenses. It's been difficult to keep up."

The current budget bill includes funds to hire three more staffers in anticipation of civil union processing needs, but that may not be enough, given the existing backlog.

"I talked to our registrar," Okubo added. "He wanted me to mention that they have five volunteers who come in to help, retirees who just feel sorry because the staff is so overworked now."

Their coworkers may be begging them to come back in the weeks leading up to the start date.

State Rep. Blake Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa) — the primary sponsor of Senate Bill 232, the measure that brought this all about — is more hopeful that, with the help of a working group he plans to set up, the preparations will be complete in time.

"We have the time to decide things," Oshiro said, "and all these little issues can get ironed out."

Jo-Ann Adams, attorney and gay-rights advocate, knows that Hawaii's brand-new civil union law provides for civil unions, not marriage.

Federal tax and benefits rights don't apply to couples in a civil union; nor will their licenses be portable should they move to a state that doesn't sanction same-sex unions.

But she will be carefully watching for an evenhanded implementation of Senate Bill 232 (since Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed it into law, it's also known as Act 1).

Civil unions are open to heterosexual as well as same-sex couples, but the gay and lesbian pairs in particular remember the sting of disappointment when the state started handing out the limited legal protections of the reciprocal beneficiaries status. Applications were accepted only by mail; unlike opposite-sex couples seeking marriage who could walk into the Department of Health, those wanting reciprocal beneficiaries were turned away.

"They're going to have to make it as close to marriage as they can," Adams said. "Otherwise, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) is going to take them to court."

Ironing out the remaining procedural wrinkles in setting up the civil unions process will be the focus of the next 8 1/2 months before the law takes effect Jan. 1. Adams and other activists are geared up for that work, but most feel cautiously optimistic about what's ahead.

"We're very fortunate to be starting off with an administration that supports it," Adams said, and state Rep. Blake Oshiro, the principal champion of the legislative push for civil unions, agreed.

Oshiro said the initial hope was that Senate Bill 231, a measure advocates worked out in the interim preceding the legislative session, could have been adopted instead. This draft made it clearer how certain issues would be resolved.

The two that concern advocates the most are parental rights and the termination of a previous reciprocal-beneficiaries relationship. The bill they preferred specifically spelled out that the civil-union partner of a biological parent would be presumed the co-parent with equal rights; that was unclear in SB 232.

On the termination question, some couples worry that the final bill suggests reciprocal beneficiaries could be seen as ending as soon as the civil-union license is issued, rather than when it's solemnized in a ceremony. Alan Spector, one of the principal activists involved in the push for civil unions, is concerned about a gap during which the couple will lose an existing set of legal rights before the "upgrade" to a civil union goes into effect.

"Somebody will walk out with their newly minted civil union license, when it hasn't been solemnized, and they'll be hit by a bus," he said.

Such scenarios are raised as red flags more than anything else; Adams expressed confidence that the Department of Health can clarify these issues through administrative rulemaking. Oshiro said he'll be introducing a resolution in the next week or so, calling for a working group to be set up to tackle any residual concerns.

Janice Okubo, spokesperson for the department, said DOH is trying to get a jump on all this. The Office of the Attorney General already has been approached, she said.

"We're getting a legal review by the AG, to determine what we have to put in place, and decide whether to establish administrative rules," Okubo said.

The real nail-biter, she said, is whether the staff will be able to handle the workload. Already pushed into a backlog handling the roughly 24,000 annual marriage licenses, the department officials hope they'll get their request for three additional vital-statistics staffers to deal with the addition of civil unions.

Also on the agenda, she said: training the independent marriage licensing agents who want to pick up the additional civil unions business; establishing a call center to field questions on applying; and working with the travel industry, already accustomed to an influx of brides and grooms wanting island weddings, to relay the correct information to couples with civil unions inquiries.

Throughout the private sector, businesses that offer spousal and family health coverage will have to prepare for the addition of civil-unions partners to the benefits packages.

Some experts predict only a modest impact, however. Last year, the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization conducted a study on the economic effects of civil unions. It concluded, based on the experience in other states, that Hawaii businesses could expect new enrollments to boost benefit costs by about 1 percent.

There could be some property tangles to smooth as well. Spector, a psychotherapist, has a reciprocal beneficiaries relationship — as well as a Canadian marriage — with Jon-Paul Bingham, who's on the UH molecular biosciences faculty. Along with that is the legal designation of the house they own — "tenancy by the entirety," which hinges on their reciprocal beneficiaries status. Will that change with the conversion to a civil-unions status after Jan. 1? Nobody's really sure.

Of course, Spector said, they celebrate the passage of SB 232, despite such uncertainties.

"Jon-Paul's career brought us to Hawaii," he added, "but civil unions will keep us here."

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