With the legislative session winding down, and huge, sweeping bills like the omnibus education package and the gasline bill absorbing the bulk of the headlines, some of the more innocuous stuff gets skipped over. It’s totally understandable. With the legislature teetering on the brink of passing myriad mega-projects that will dominate where Alaska deficit-spends for the foreseeable future, it’s tough to justify assigning much time and space to bills creating novelty bear-themed license plates for first responders and resolutions condemning violent acts by Assad’s regime in Syria. (I doubt he’s listening.)
That being said, I did want to take a brief moment to point out an interesting pattern that’s been playing out this session, ending its strange journey on the senate floor Monday evening. It’s a bill we’ve discussed before.
House Bill 212 was introduced back in January by Representative Doug Isaacson (R-North Pole). The bill extends an exemption we offer as a courtesy to active duty service members — the right to retain their out of state drivers’ licenses while stationed in Alaska — to those service members’ spouses.
Current state law requires any new resident to surrender his or her out-of-state drivers license and obtain one from Alaska. In doing so, servicemen and women, relocated here temporarily to serve, would be forced to forfeit their residency in their home states, despite having no intention to stay here. So, the legislature carved out an exemption allowing active duty service members to retain that residency. That way, they can still vote absentee on important issues at home and skip the part where the bartender dives into that giant folder that displays what an Alaska license is supposed to look like before pouring them a well-deserved drink.
It’s a basic courtesy. Doing whatever we can to make their stay in Alaska easier falls neatly into the “least we can do” category.
But the law bears no recognition to the fact that many of those military personnel are married; presumably to people who, similarly, wish to return home when their spouses’ terms of service expire. Isaacson, who originally came to Alaska in the late 70s while serving in the Air Force, rightly identified this oversight and introduced HB212 to remedy it.
Unfortunately, he decided to narrow the bill’s scope to how the state of Alaska defines “spouse,” rather than how the United States Armed Forces defines it. As I wrote back in February:
The United States military abandoned its discriminatory policies against lesbian, gay, and bisexual service members with the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell four years ago. In every state, same-sex spouses are afforded access to military housing, insurance and retirement benefits, hospital visitation rights, educational and employment benefits, alongside a cadre of other provisions. In 17 states, from which many of the over 50,000 military personnel stationed in Alaska hail, same sex marriage is legal. Factor in those states that recognize unions and partnerships, and that number jumps to 27 — a majority, with several more close behind. To the men and women in committed same sex couples — who are no less “brave” and whose service is no less “honorable” then the straight military personnel that Isaacson has narrowed an otherwise commendable bill to include — this would fairly clearly be seen as a huge step backward in the pursuit of equal rights for all.
HB212 was first introduced and heard in the House Military and Veterans Affairs committee. During testimony, assistant attorney general Erling Johansen raised the issue. “We have one concern from the Department of Law,” he told legislators. “If you’d like to avoid possible constitutional challenge… it would be wise to accommodate same sex couples in the bill; same sex domestic partners.”
Rep. Max Gruenberg (D-Anchorage) offered an amendment, correcting the bill’s language to include same sex partners (so long as they met a laundry list of requirements establishing the legitimacy of their relationship). The more inclusive language, however, was shot down along partly lines, with Republicans opposing the amendment by a 3-2 vote.
“A spouse is a spouse,” Isaacson repeated multiple times.
When the bill resurfaced in its next committee of referral, House State Affairs, Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins resurrected Gruenberg’s amendment. “I think it’s important that we not permit this kind — even if it’s a small amount — of unequal treatment to continue,” Kriess-Tomkins told his colleagues.
It failed again, 5-1.
“I don’t think it’s germane really to who gets a drivers license and who doesn’t, which is the main part of this bill,” said committee chairman, Rep. Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage).
On Saint Patrick’s Day, HB212 came up for a full vote of the House. Gruenberg and his colleagues, Andy Josephson (D-Anchorage), Les Gara (D-Anchorage), and David Guttenburg (D-Fairbanks), introduced the amendment a third time. “All military families,” Gruenberg said, “are people who have given much of their time — in some cases their lives and their physical ability — to the service of their country.”
He said it would be appropriate to start by thanking them for their service. “And a way we can thank them for their continuing service — their continuing service — is to extend and repeat the policy of inclusion that the federal government, the military, the president, and the entire military establishment has extended to the families of military folks.”
“The original bill actually proposes adding 27 words to the state statute to do a very simple thing,” Rep. Dan Saddler (R-Eagle River) responded. “This amendment would add ten times that amount of words — 217 words — to do something else entirely. I cannot support it.”
The third attempt was defeated, 14-22, though it picked up the support of Representatives Mike Hawker (R-Anchorage), Lindsay Holmes (R-Anchorage), Cathy Munoz (R-Juneau), and Ben Nageak (D-Barrow), who caucuses with the majority.
Stupid word counts. Always ruining perfectly good legislation.
The bill passed the full body, 36-0 (with four members absent).
And then, on Monday night, HB212 reached its final stop before landing on the governor’s desk. The full senate took up the measure.
And back came the same amendment, offered by Senator Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage).
We’ve repealed Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The federal government recognizes marriages between same sex couples regardless of the state in which they reside or were married. It’s the law of the land that full rights and benefits given to married members of the military should be commensurate with those of their same sex counterparts…. The amendment here is about fairness to the families of those who are serving our country in the military and I ask for the body’s support.
“And I’m objecting,” Senator John Coghill (R-North Pole) responded. “The sponsor of the bill does not want this amendment and spoke pretty clearly on it.”
And four a fourth and final time, the amendment was voted down, 5-15. The Senate then voted the bill through, by unanimous vote. Same sex couples not included. Sorry.