Gay marriage debate heats up as local lawmakers still undecided; bill to get House hearing today

Published 11:00 am Monday, May 6, 2013

Though this legislative session has been dominated by budget talk at the Capitol, many throughout Minnesota are discussing Democratic Sen. Scott Dibble’s bill to legalize same-sex marriage.

Activists for and against gay marriage have ramped up their rhetoric in recent weeks as the House of Representatives and Senate consider the potentially controversial measure.

Lawmakers could vote as early as this week on the bill to make same-sex marriage legal in Minnesota on Aug. 1, and the House Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to review the legislation today. While supporters appear to have the needed votes nailed down in the Senate (although Sen. Dan Sparks, DFL-Austin, hasn’t said how he will vote yet), the House is less certain. A group of about a dozen rural House Democrats has been reluctant to commit, hailing from districts where voters strongly backed last fall’s failed constitutional gay marriage ban.

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Rep. Jeanne Poppe is one such Democrat, as the Austin lawmaker said Friday she has yet to decide which way she’ll vote, but may support the measure based on the same-sex marriage bill’s economic impact.

Poppe said she was putting aside the emotional connotations involved in same-sex marriage, instead looking at whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers would want to stay in the state, let alone greater Minnesota cities, if same-sex marriage were not passed and LGBT workers couldn’t share pensions, insurance and other benefits with their partners.

“If there’s an appearance, an expectation that we’re not going to be able to accommodate people who are LGBT, I think we need to consider that,” Poppe said. “We need to think about what this will do economically for us.”

This weekend, a state analysis showed a small impact on Minnesota’s general fund.

The analysis by Minnesota’s budget office predicts that if gay marriage becomes legal, 114 state employees would enroll in state benefits for their married partners. That would cost the state about $688,000 a year. But it would be partly offset by about $190,000 from same-sex couples buying marriage licenses.

Sparks was one of four DFL senators to vote in favor of postponing the gay marriage bill in mid-March, which he said was to the keep the budget as the Legislature’s primary focus.

Another bill to authorize civil unions in Minnesota has floated around the Capitol with considerably less traction. Poppe said that bill wasn’t as complete in its approach to the issue as Dibble’s proposal.

In Mower County, 57 percent of voters supported an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage last November, though the ban was narrowly defeated statewide. Area activists on both sides of the issue have recently spoken out, with proponents comparing the bill to the civil rights movement while critics contend the bill would lessen traditional marriage.

More than 50 people attended a rally for traditional marriage last month at the Faith Evangelical Free Church parking lot, held by lobbying group Minnesotans for Marriage. Rally organizers said the same-sex marriage bill posed a threat to traditional marriage and would undermine family structure to the detriment of children.

While many of those who contest same-sex marriage argue it has a negative effect on children, Mower County GOP deputy chairman Dennis Schminke said he’s not convinced that should factor in.

“A not insignificant percentage of [heterosexual couples] have managed to screw that up anyway,” Schminke said, pointing to high divorce rates and the prevalence of single parents.

Schminke is, however, concerned further change could follow the legalization of gay marriage, including polygamy.

“Why not two men and one woman?” he said.

Religious leaders on both sides of the issue have taken to lobbying legislators over the bill. The quieter, more behind-the-scenes approach is nothing like the heated public debate over the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

With the vote expected soon, some lawmakers have noticed the difference — particularly the lower profile of the Catholic Church, which spent the most money of any single religious group in the state, about $650,000 — to support the amendment.

Faith leaders say that’s because the audience is different. This time they don’t have to persuade some 1.5 million voters on a referendum. Instead, their focus is the individual lawmakers, who will decide the issue.

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.