Bills calling for legalizing same-sex marriage and banning discrimination against transgender persons are among the hot-button issues set to emerge next week when the Maryland State Legislature begins its 2012 session.
Officials with an expanded coalition backing the marriage bill and a new transgender advocacy group leading the effort on behalf of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act say they are hopeful that the legislature will pass both measures before it adjourns for the year in April.
“It’s all hands on deck with both bills,” said Carrie Evans, executive director of the statewide LGBT group Equality Maryland. “We’re talking to many lawmakers, including Republicans.”
Evans and others working on the two bills were cautious about predicting when leaders of the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates will bring the measures up for a vote, saying control over the timing of the bills was exclusively in the hands of the lawmakers.
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Supporters were also cautious about disclosing strategy for defeating an expected voter referendum that experts say will almost certainly be brought before the electorate in November – in the midst of the U.S. presidential election – if the Maryland Legislature passes a marriage bill this spring.
Public opinion polls show voters in the state are evenly divided over whether to vote for or against same-sex marriage.
Under rules of the Maryland Legislature, the committees with jurisdiction over the bills must hold a public hearing on the marriage and gender identity bills, even though the two bills were the subject of lengthy and contentious hearings less than a year ago during the legislature’s 2011 session.
The Democratic-controlled Senate approved the marriage bill last March in what supporters called an historic 25-21 vote. But the Democratic-controlled House of Delegates killed the measure for the year by voting to send it back to committee after supporters determined they were a few votes short of the 71 votes needed to pass it in the 141-member House.
In what some called an ironic twist, the House of Delegates passed the transgender bill last year before the Senate killed it by voting to send it back to a Senate committee. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller (D-Prince George’s and Calvert Counties) reportedly orchestrated the decision to hold off on a Senate vote, saying a number of key supporters changed their minds and threatened to vote against the bill.
Shortly after the defeat of the marriage bill last year, supporters led by the Human Rights Campaign formed Marylanders for Marriage Equality, an expanded coalition of organizations with a track record of political clout with state lawmakers. Among the coalition partners are the NAACP of Baltimore, the Maryland ACLU, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Equality Maryland and HRC are also members of the coalition.
Coalition spokesperson Kevin Nix of HRC has said each coalition partner brings unique skills and expertise to the lobbying effort on behalf of the marriage bill.
But coalition officials haven’t disclosed which, if any, lawmakers who were uncommitted or against the bill last year have indicated support this time around.
“The good news and the bad news is the legislators are the same,” said Mark McLaurin, a gay man who serves as political director for the Local 500 of the SEIU of Maryland.
He noted that having the same players is helpful to a degree because they are already informed on the marriage and transgender bills. But McLaurin cautioned that with no election taking place since the 2011 legislative session, it may be hard to line up the additional supporters needed to pass the bills.
“Quite frankly, despite the great work that’s been done since the last session, I haven’t heard very many announced conversions from no to yes,” he said. “So in many respects I feel we’re in the same place that we were.”
Like others lobbying for the marriage bill, McLaurin said he is hopeful that Gov. Martin O’Malley’s decision to include the marriage and transgender bills as part of his legislative package this year will provide an important boost for both measures.