Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rights on the Menu in Massachusetts

To keep a bit of perspective, we should probably recall that only a few years ago, any GLBT bill introduced on Beacon Hill was quixotic at best. This session, we'll see a flurry, plus one to tweak the commonwealth constitution.

How they fare under the blended new/old leadership will say a lot about how seriously the legislature takes the landslide vote for change in Massachusetts.

From last fall until this session's Constitutional Convention (ConCon), the sea serpent in the harbor remains the anti-marriage-equality amendment. According to the current Bay Windows, the magic number is a huge nine legislators shifting from let-the-people-vote to protect-marriage-equality-as-a-civil-right position. The Ethan Jacobs piece includes a sidebar with the counts -- defeated anti-equality folk, elected pro-equality ones, elected anti-equality ones, and those terrified of appearing to legislate this right rather than putting it to a plebiscite.

"Trying to change nine votes is a very, very difficult task. And in fact the odds might be stacked against us," said Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus. She admitted to having been overly optimistic in hoping to get 151 of 200 votes against the amendment this ConCon.

Yet, the Mass Family Institute/Vote on Marriage people may have gone too far...and wakened the sleeping bunnies and kittens. They have been dissembling, shouting and cheating for years to get this amendment as far as they have. The much larger groups of civil-rights supporters, GBLT voters and vanilla progressives seem to have finally gotten fed up as one. The demagogues' inability to know their limits may at last set the stage for some long overdue remedies.

Consider the list of new legislation that Bay Windows provides:
  • Trans wording to discrimination and hate crimes. Rep. Carl Sciortino (D-Somerville) introduced a bill to add gender identify and expression to the existing statutes. He notes that D.C., nine sates, and 81 cities and towns have such wording already.
  • Veterans benefits Equity. Gay vets, even those tossed from service just because they were gay, can't get federal benefits. Sciortino would provide full state benefits.
  • Out-of-State SSM. The awful 1913 laws then Gov. Mitt Romney and AG Tom Reilly used against same-sex couples from out of state are the target of a renewed repeal effort. Sen. Jarrett Barrios (D-Cambridge) is reintroducing it on his side and Sciortino in the House. Romney would have vetoed this and Barrios is betting that Gov. Deval Patrick would sign it. He noted that Patrick could order officials here not to enforce it, as Romney and Reilly ordered them to use it, but that would leave this remnant of the antimiscegenation era to be used as a weapon in the future.
  • State Medicaid for Same-Sex Couples. Barrios and Rep. Liz Malia (D-JP) plan a bill that would let the state extend its MassHealth insurance to anyone Massachusetts recognizes as married.
In no small part because I like fixing underlying problems rather than patch, patch, patch, I was excited to see the State House News Service announce a tweaking aimed at Article XLVIII of the constitution. This ballot initiative section has is the small wart that has grown into a huge tumor as these measures have in the 24 states that use them.

This first tweak is from Rep. Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge). It would prevent initiatives from limiting or abridging civil rights.

While the Vote On Marriage types love to say the current amendment is not aiming to do that, or really that their marriages are civil rights, but those of same-sex couples are not. Even our trembling, whispering Supreme Judicial Court could not take that argument seriously.

Wolf has company from Rep. Byron Rushing (D-Boston), Michael Feta (D-Melrose) and Sciortino.

Given the grief and particularly efforts to redefine marriage here by changing it from the civil contract it has always been from Colonial days, this tweak is a necessary start. The political and corporate special interests who love to abuse ballot initiatives need clear rules and limits to keep them from using this well-intentioned populist tool for their narrow interests.

We love this and hope it is the first of many such process improvements and clarifications.

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Anonymous said...

You're discussing the role of Governor and AG as if they are same thing. The Governor sets the agenda, the AG enforces laws. Sorry you don't like the 1913 laws, but Reilly is not afforded the luxury of choosing which laws to enforce, so stop talking about him like he's some kind of homophobe just because he was doing his job.

massmarrier said...

Oh, no, these were different roles, but coordinated. Reilly had options as the chief lawyer of interpretation. For one, he could have set the tone by calling this what it is -- a backhanded way of reversing a judicial ruling, the Goodridge case. Had he done so, the SJC would likely have backed him up in any suit. He did the opposite and eventually the SJC supported him there. Likewise, he could have given an opposing view on the 1913 laws. He and Romney danced together.

Evan Ravitz said...

Ballot initiatives, while the closest thing to "government by the people" there is, do need improvement.

This will be the subject of the U of Colorado Law School's Jan 26 Conference

Much more on initiatives at

massmarrier said...

Thanks. I'll look for more from that.

Isn't it peculiar that so many of us, even alleged progressives, take this relatively new and badly abused form of lawmaking and amending so literally. Bad guys all over have perverted initiatives to the point of making them seem terrible and undemocratic in general.

I'm with you; they need fixing now that we know where the abuses happen.