By Tom Brower

The passage of House Bill 444 on April 29 was historic. The House of Representatives now joins the Senate in its commitment to equality. This is the farthest we have ever been to providing both homosexuals and heterosexuals the option of a civil union, as opposed to “marriage.”

Yes, there is a difference. Civil unions and marriage are as similar (or as different) as Coke and Pepsi.

The vote is in line with public opinion. According to local polling, a majority of Hawaii residents support civil unions but oppose same-sex marriage. Nationally, polling data also show a significant number of people who oppose same- sex marriage nonetheless favor civil unions.

I believe Gov. Linda Lingle wants to allow the bill to become law, but may be persuaded against it. Currently, there are not enough votes in the House to override a veto. I respect her and look forward to her decision. Ultimately, I hope what is best for Hawaii prevails.

The next part is where it gets tricky. This is one of the most important votes any legislator will ever make. It is a shame that the vote couldn’t have been done in a more dignified and open way.

The perceived “sneakiness” of the process cheapened the bill’s glory like a bad aftertaste, and the public should know how legislators felt about it. As one of the 31 House members who voted for the bill’s passage, I (like others) have concerns about how HB 444 was resurrected and voted on. It left members of the House and the public troubled by the lack of transparency.

When the legislative process is manipulated — whether unintentionally or deliberately — the public feels deceived, even though it was technically permissible in accordance with Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure, the rulebook under which we operate.

HB 444 was introduced on Jan. 23, 2009. It passed the House but stalled in the Senate after an amendment was added to make civil unions available to both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Then, a year later, it passed so-called third reading on Jan. 22.

Tossed back to the House, leadership decided on Jan. 29 to postpone action on the bill “indefinitely.” For all the public knew, the issue was dead. Three months later, in the final moments of the last day of the 2010 session, House leadership brought the bill back, and it passed.

True, there were rumors circulating from people inside and outside the Capitol that the issue might come up for a vote, and there were phone calls, emails, and visits from various groups and individuals. But no one was formally notified that there would be a vote on the civil unions legislation.

With talk that we did not have the votes to pass HB 444, and that we needed to focus on more pressing business, there was no reason to believe we would vote on it that day. Contrary to some people’s belief, this was not a back-door issue that all legislators knew about but did not inform the public.

Many people who did not support civil unions felt they were misled into thinking the issue had been shelved, and many House legislators are sympathetic to them. Opponents can argue that the way the bill passed was “sneaky” and that the merits of the bill were not debated.

Again, the way this happened was legal and in compliance with the rules, but as a matter of decorum, the public may feel like we pulled a fast one on them.

The point is this: No matter the end result, the process needs to ensure fairness. Put another way: If we had voted to make civil unions illegal, this last-minute vote would surely have been met with outrage, both in and outside the state Capitol.

Generally speaking, if any legislator was considering such a big move to make on the floor, the public should be notified at least 24 hours before the bomb is dropped. After all, this is their Legislature.

As controversial as this was, I am glad to have voted on the measure. Just as firefighters must go where there is smoke, legislators must address controversial issues. Our democracy is at its best when challenges are accepted instead of avoided.

Rep. Tom Brower, D-23rd (Waikiki, Ala Moana) wrote this commentary

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