Whether he wants the attention, Rep. Blake Oshiro has become the face of civil unions at the state Legislature.
The House majority leader has been the prime advocate of the legislation, even going so far as to revive a dead proposal on the final day of the session last year, putting colleagues squarely on the spot in what promised to be a tough election year.
Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa) also is gay and a potential beneficiary of any law that bestows benefits of marriage to same-sex couples.
But as he prepares for Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s historic signing today of a bill to allow civil unions, Oshiro says he does not have the luxury of looking ahead, preferring instead to focus on legislative priorities.
"Personally, it’s been ongoing for several years for me, and so I think it’s one accomplishment that I’m proud of and it just means now I can start focusing on the other big issues that we have to deal with this legislative session," Oshiro said yesterday.
As to whether he would someday look to benefit from a civil union: "Probably."
"I think I’ll have to talk with my other half and see how that goes," he said. "But right now I think I’m still too caught up in trying to figure out how to balance the budget.
THROUGH THE YEARS
Here is the history of civil-unions proposals heard in the state Legislature since 1998 when voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to define marriage as between one man and one woman. In most years, legislation was introduced but not heard in committee.
2004: House Bill 1024: Heard by the House Judiciary Committee. Deferred.
"After that, then we’ll start looking forward in the future to what we may be doing or availing ourselves of with the law."
Oshiro is expected to be among those on hand when Abercrombie signs the legislation, Senate Bill 232, at a ceremony scheduled for 2 p.m. at Washington Place.
With the signing, Hawaii becomes the seventh state to grant civil unions to same-sex couples without authorizing marriage itself. Five states and Washington, D.C., permit same-sex marriage.
It is the latest chapter for a state that has figured prominently in the national gay rights movement’s efforts since the early 1990s, when the state Supreme Court nearly legalized gay marriage.
The 1993 ruling would have made Hawaii the first state to allow same-sex couples to wed, but it did not take effect while voters were given a chance to decide the matter. They responded in 1998 by overwhelmingly approving the nation’s first "defense of marriage" state constitutional amendment, giving the Legislature the authority to define marriage as between one man and one woman but leaving the door open for civil unions.
Senate Bill 232 allows all couples — same-sex and heterosexual — to enter into a civil union, a legal status with all the rights, benefits, protections and responsibilities as traditional marriage.
It is largely similar to a bill the Legislature passed last year but vetoed by former Gov. Linda Lingle, who characterized it as same-sex marriage by another name, which she opposed.
With support in both chambers again this year, lawmakers sought to take advantage of the consensus and fast-track the bill to the governor and move on to more pressing matters.
This year’s bill includes language codifying the implementation of civil unions.
It clarifies that because civil unions would not be recognized under federal law, certain provisions of the Internal Revenue Code applying to husbands and wives in Hawaii apply with the same force and effect to partners in civil unions. Family Court will also have jurisdiction in matters of annulment, divorce and separation in civil unions, as the court does over marriages.
With an effective date of Jan. 1, when the first civil unions could take place, Oshiro said he believes the Department of Health should have enough lead time to adequately prepare.
"I think right now we’re trying to find out how other states have handled it," he said, "just seeing how would be best to make sure that we don’t overload the Department of Health and Vital Statistics as they grapple with this in the first few weeks, which I anticipate will be a huge, huge amount of work for them."
Acting Health Director Loretta Fuddy did not return an a-mail message seeking comment yesterday.
According to a report prepared this month by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, the state could expect an average of about 327 civil unions filings per year over the next six years, with more occurring in the beginning of the period.
The bill’s signing also would bring an end to a lawsuit filed by gay couples against the state last year after Lingle’s veto.
Gay rights advocacy group Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii sued the state last year on behalf of six gay couples, alleging it failed to provide equal rights to gays and lesbians short of marriage.