Bills in Rhode Island and Illinois put states in race to become Number 10

Ray Sullivan. Photo credit: MERI

The race to become the tenth state to provide marriage equality for same-sex couples is underway, with Rhode Island and Illinois running neck-and-neck.

Marriage equality bills were launched in both states’ legislatures last week.

In Illinois, a marriage equality bill passed its first vote—in a Senate Executive Committee—8 to 5. But, with a new legislative session set to begin Wednesday, January 9, supporters decided to “go back to square one” rather than try to rush votes in the lame duck legislature.

In Rhode Island, identical bills were introduced in the state house and senate. Noting that Rhode Island is the only New England state without marriage equality, House sponsor Arthur Handy said the legislation is long overdue. Openly gay House Speaker Gordon Fox, who took considerable criticism two years ago for setting aside a marriage equality bill to pass a civil unions bill, said this month he will call for a House vote on the marriage bill by the end of January.

“Marriage equality is going to be an important issue,” Fox told reporters last week. “Won’t stand alone, but I do want to do it early, send it over to the senate. I do think we have the votes to pass marriage equality in the House of Representatives, so that’s a priority.”

Ray Sullivan, director of the Marriage Equality for Rhode Island (MERI) campaign, said he expects the House Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing and vote within the next couple of weeks.

“We are not taking anything for granted, of course,” said Sullivan, but he added the prospects for success look good in the House.

Prospects for the bill in the Senate are a little tougher, where the Senate president, Democrat Teresa Weed, is opposed. But Sullivan said she has promised to allow the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote on the matter if the House passes the bill.

Openly gay Senator Donna Nusselbush sponsors the bill in the Senate, and voters in November elected five new pro-marriage equality legislators to the senate. And the campaign to pass a marriage equality bill is being led by a former Rhode Island Rep. Ray Sullivan, head of the Fight Back Rhode Island Campaign.

This year, the bill starts off with 42 co-sponsors in the 75-member House, virtually assuring passage. It has 11 co-sponsors in the 38-member Senate. Democrats hold 32 of those seats.

Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee (I) signed a civil union bill into law in 2011 but said the bill failed to “fully achieve” the goal of providing same-sex couples with equal rights. Fox derailed the marriage equality bill that year, saying it had no realistic chance of passing the Senate. Fox told the local papers that he did not even have the votes to pass the marriage equality bill in 2011 in the House, where Democrats outnumbered Republicans 65 to 10.

In Illinois, where the marriage equality bill got off to a bit of a false start last week, the Senate is 35 Democrats, 24 Republicans. The House is 64 Democrats, 53 Republicans.

Bernard Cherkasov, CEO of Equality Illinois, said on January 4 that, although the marriage equality bill there had just cleared an historic hurdle –passing the Senate Executive Committee, supporters felt they simply did not have enough time to get the bill through the legislature before the new sessions opened, Wednesday, January 9. Plus, three supportive senators were absent due to family emergencies last week, making the vote more difficult.

“It’s never simple and easy in Illinois,” said Cherkasov. “But it’s just timing. With three key yes votes in the senate suddenly gone for emergency reasons, we didn’t have their votes and time ran out.”

But while supporters must “go back to square one on Wednesday,” said Cherkasov, with the new session comes a “progressive majority which will be broader and stronger.”

“It’s never going to be easy, but having had the debate already in the senate and having a senate leader building coalitions, we do expect a much more civil debate and expect they will vote the right to marry,” said Cherkasov.

Because the Illinois legislature essentially goes into recess soon after it convenes, Cherkasov said he does not expect any votes until after the body reconvenes January 31.

And the chances for passage?

“Really strong,” said Cherkasov. There are progressive majorities in both chambers. Both President Obama and U.S. Senator Dick Durbin have urged the legislature to pass a marriage equality bill. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn has pushed the legislature to pass the bill. Even the Illinois Republican Party president is backing the legislation.

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