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SB 283

(c) Dennis McBride, 2010

Previous Legislation

Question 2

When the Nevada electorate passed Question 2 to amend the state constitution forbidding same-sex marriage in 2000 and 2002, it seemed the issue was settled. The success of Question 2 killed several nascent efforts in the state to provide various domestic partnership benefits. Proposals to extend health benefits to the unmarried partners of Las Vegas city and Clark County employees failed in 1998 and 1999 just as the same-sex marriage issue was heating up in Nevada. In the county's case, Chief Deputy District Attorney Victor Priebe ruled it was against state law to extend such benefits to unmarried partners—a problem which could easily have been solved had anyone asked a legislator during the 1999 session to amend legislation to make such extension legal. No one did. Priebe's ruling chilled the Las Vegas city effort, even though new mayor Oscar Goodman expressed support, as did his predecessor, Jan Jones, who declared February 12, 1998 National Freedom to Marry Day.[1]

AB 496 & AB 383

When the Nevada legislature convened in 2001, then-Assemblyman David Parks introduced AB 496, the Family Fairness Bill, to establish reciprocal beneficiary relationships. At the same time Clark County Commissioner Erin Kenney proposed a resolution in support of Parks' legislation and to extend health benefits to unmarried partners of county employees, straight and gay. Richard Ziser, the gentile face of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage in Nevada [CPM], which had sponsored Question 2, said of AB 496, "With 70 percent of the people in the state of Nevada confirming what they want, this proves they are trying to push on the people something they have already said they don't want." 

County Commissioners, voting 6-1, tabled the resolution until they saw what happened to AB 496. Parks’ legislation was killed in committee, largely due to the CPM and its energized supporters. When AB 496 died so did Clark County's own domestic partners proposal. Question 2 likewise killed domestic partner benefit proposals for the time being in Nevada's university, state college, and community college systems. Two years later, in 2003, David Parks quietly introduced AB 386 providing hospital visitation rights for unmarried couples, both gay and straight. Little public attention was called to the bill, controversy was avoided--and it passed both houses unanimously and Governor Kenny Guinn signed it, providing one small but significant domestic partner benefit for gay [as well as straight] couples.[2]

Introduction of SB 283

Fast-forward six years: David Parks, now a Nevada State Senator, together with Senator Bob Coffin, introduce SB 283 on March 16, 2009, noted as “An Act relating to domestic relations; providing for the registration and dissolution of domestic partnerships in the State of Nevada; setting forth the rights and responsibilities attendant to such partnerships; and providing other matters properly relating thereto.” “Other matters” included section 10, where the Act specified that a domestic partnership was not a marriage, which was a nod to Question 2, intended to quiet opposition as much as to abide by Nevada’s constitutional requirements. It was also a first step toward de-coupling the religious institution of marriage from the civil institution of legalized, state-sanctioned pairing—a concept detailed in a surprisingly lucid and supportive editorial from Las Vegas Review-Journal publisher Sherman Frederick.[3]

Opposition

Despite that nod to the state’s institutionalized bigotry, the legislative journey of SB 283 was contentious. While comments posted in the legislative website for SB 283 were generally supportive, some comments, eight years after they were used to support Question 2, seemed quaintly vicious in 2009:

“In old testament homosexuality is punishable by death in Leviticus and [SB 283] is opposed.”
“Government’s purpose is to protect NATURAL Rights. Homosexual relationships are not natural to humans and therefore there is no right to have them recognized by society.”
“We as Nevadans voted two times against changing the definition of marriage. … Be our representatives and use OUR voice to deny this blatant disregard of the majority who voted against changing marriage.”
“We made it very clear how we felt in Nevada. You guys are supposed to recognize our decisions via the votes we cast. We are your bosses, not the other way around. We don’t have to be California-light around here.”

On March 27, SB 283’s first public hearing in the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor, drew both ardent supporters and the usual homophobic opponents including Richard Ziser, who complained that SB 283 circumvented Question 2—the sole issue on which he had staked his political life. “Simply because you call it something else,” Ziser said, “Does not make it so.” Nevertheless, SB 283 passed successfully out of committee on April 8—although without a single Republican vote.[4] Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons—the most unpopular governor in the state’s history—announced that he intended vetoing SB 283 if it passed the legislature because, “I just don’t believe in it.”[5]

Community Support

Not content merely to testify in support of SB 283, the Nevada gay community intended lobbying the legislature in a planned effort reminiscent of the successful repeal of the state’s sodomy law in 1993 [SB 466]. In response to the passage of Proposition 8 in California in 2008 repealing the right to same-sex marriage, Denise Duarte and other Nevada queer advocates founded Stand OUT for Equality through the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada. With two successful public protests under its belt—November 15 and December 13, 2008 [it was at the November 15 rally that noted comedienne Wanda Sykes, playing the Las Vegas Strip at the time, came out], Stand OUT launched a legislative lobbying effort in Carson City on April 21-22, 2009, known as Equality Days, starting with a reception at the governor’s mansion, followed by a visit to the legislative chambers the next day to educate Nevada’s legislators on LGBT issues.[6]

On the evening of April 21, 70 activists from across the state gathered at the governor’s mansion, including supporters from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Las Vegas-based Lamba Business and Professional Association. Governor Gibbons did not attend; his wife, Dawn, however—a former Republican Nevada State Assemblywoman and involved in a bitter divorce fight with her husband in 2009—did attend the reception. Encouraged by Night Beat publisher Bill Schafer from Las Vegas, Dawn announced her support of SB 283 and urged the Nevada legislature to override her husband’s veto. At the same time the reception was going on, word came from the capitol building that the senate had just passed SB 283. On April 22, the bill was sent to the Assembly Judiciary Committee.[7]

Party Lines

Events moved rapidly after that. When the Assembly Judiciary Committee debated the bill on May 8, it got unexpected support from straight assemblywoman Ellen Spiegel, who described her experience being thrown out of the apartment she’d shared with her partner of 10 years because they weren’t married and the lease wasn’t in her name. Until that moment, SB 283 had been perceived as providing same-sex couples most of the rights of marriage; but Spiegel’s testimony showed publicly that domestic partnership benefits worked for everyone. “Domestic partnerships are not just for the gay community,” Spiegel said—the same argument made years before in support of Parks’ AB 496 and AB 386. Richard Ziser threatened to pursue another constitutional amendment banning domestic partnership in Nevada. SB 283 passed the Assembly Judiciary Committee, but on party lines—all the Democrats voted for it, while all the Republicans voted against it. 

The bill successfully passed the Assembly on May 15, although it was still two votes short of overriding Governor Jim Gibbons’ promised veto. Having passed both houses of the state legislature, SB 283 went to the governor’s desk—where he vetoed it on May 25.[8]

Overriding Jim Gibbons' Veto

During the week which followed Jim Gibbons’ veto of SB 283, lobbying from the state’s gay community and from the bill’s supporters in the legislature went into high gear. Stand OUT for Equality sponsored a rally at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada on May 26 and urged community members to press their legislators. The letter Jim Gibbons wrote in 1993 expressing his support for repealing the state’s sodomy law [SB 466] was circulated among legislators in Carson City to emphasize the governor’s ideological inconsistency. But what seemed to make the most difference was a series of articles suggesting that if Jim Gibbons’ veto stood, Nevada—dragging itself through the worst economic slump in its history—risked alienating gay tourists and the tens of millions of dollars they’d otherwise bring into the state. The Nevada Resort Association and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority both urged legislators to override Gibbons’ veto; their unspoken threat was loss of campaign donations if they didn’t override. Former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones—who had issued a proclamation in 1998 supporting same-sex marriage, and who, in 2009, served as Harrah’s Entertainment senior vice president—sent “an impassioned letter” to state lawmakers noting that “Our state cannot afford to lose any more revenue to other destinations because of a reputation as a place which is not socially or politically the right place to do business or to vacation.” Republican senator Dean Rhoads admitted it was the resort industry’s support of SB 283 that persuaded him to change his vote to support the bill—which brought the issue within one vote of overriding a veto. Most astonishing of all, however, was testimony from Las Vegas Republican senator Dennis Nolan. Nolan revealed that he’d received “many vulgar and even threatening calls” demanding he support Gibbons’ veto. He was so repulsed by the hatred and bigotry of these calls, that he changed his vote, which was the last needed to override the governor’s veto on June 1. On that day, Nevada became the 17th state where domestic partnership for gay and straight citizens is law. For all the anger, hand-wringing, and threats from Nevada’s right-wingers, as the Las Vegas Review-Journal noted, “SB 283 is … just a matter of fairness.”[9]

Notes

  1. Las Vegas mayoral proclamation, February 12, 1998 [author’s collection]; Las Vegas Review-Journal(December 13, 1998), 1B, 5B; (May 8, 1999), 3B; (July 11, 1999), 1B, 4B; Las Vegas Sun (February 18, 1999), 1B, 6B; (April 23, 1999), 2B; May 7, 1999), 1B, 10B; (May 10, 1999), 5B; Rebel Yell (April 8, 1999), 1-2.
  2. Legislative History, AB 496 [2001 (author’s collection)]; Las Vegas Bugle (February 2, 2001), 9; (March 30, 2001), 5, 18; (April 27, 2001), 5; Las Vegas Sun (March 2, 2001), 1B, 8B; (March 27, 2001), 4A; (April 11, 2001), 4B; (April 16, 2001), 4B; (April 17, 2001), 1B, 4B; (July 8, 2003), 1B, 4B; Las Vegas Review-Journal (March 20, 2001), 2B; (March 9, 2001), 5B; (April 11, 2001), 1B; (April 17, 2001), 1A, 4A; (June 5, 2001), 5A; Out Las Vegas (April 2001), 12; Las Vegas Mercury (July 24, 2003), cover, 20-22; Lori Brown, interview by Dennis McBride, March 17, 1998 [University of Nevada, Las Vegas Lied Library Special Collections Department (hereafter noted as UNLVSC) transcript F845.25 L57 1998] and September 12, 2005 [author’s transcript]; David Parks, interview by Dennis McBride, February 16 and 21, 2000 and January 31, 2007 [author’s transcripts]; press release from Equal Rights Nevada, National Association of Social Workers—Nevada, and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, March 31, 2001 [author’s collection]; Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada press release, April 5, 2001 [author’s collection]; [It was not until June 5, 2008 that the board of the state’s Public Employees Benefits Program voted 5-3 to extend benefits to the domestic partners—gay and straight—of state employees, effective July 1, 2009—provided money to fund the inclusion could be found. Nervous legislators and the Las Vegas Review-Journal hoped the efforts to find the estimated $2.7 million per year cost would fail. It did. (Las Vegas Review-Journal [June 6, 2008], 1B, 7B; [June 17, 2008], 2B; [June 19, 2008], 6B; [August 8, 2008], 2B)].
  3. Senate Bill No. 283, March 16, 2009; Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada press release, March 26, 2009 [author’s collection]; Senate Daily Journal, March 16, 2009, 12-13; Las Vegas Review-Journal (March 28, 2009), 1B, 11B; (March 29, 2009), 3B; (May 17, 2009), 1D.
  4. Las Vegas Review-Journal (April 15, 2009), 1A, 5A; Las Vegas City Life (April 16, 2009), 14; (April 23, 2009), 6; Las Vegas Sun (April 19, 2009), 6; Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada press releases, April 15 and 19, 2009 [author’s collection].
  5. Las Vegas Review-Journal (April 15, 2009), 1A, 5A; Las Vegas City Life (April 16, 2009), 14; (April 23, 2009), 6; Las Vegas Sun (April 19, 2009), 6; Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada press releases, April 15 and 19, 2009 [author’s collection].
  6. Stand OUT for Equality ephemera and correspondence [author’s collection]; Las Vegas Review-Journal(November 16, 2008), 2B; Las Vegas Weekly (November 20, 2008), 17-18; (January 8, 2009), 15-17; Las Vegas City Life (November 20, 2008), 10-11; (November 27, 2008), 12-13; Night Beat (December 2008), cover, 18-21; Las Vegas Sun (December 26, 2008), 1-2.
  7. Las Vegas Sun (April 21, 2009), 3; Night Beat (May 2009), 20-21, 24, 36-37; Las Vegas Review-Journal (April 22, 2009), 1A, 4A; (April 26, 2009), 1B, 3B, 10B, 2D; (April 27, 2009), 2B; Las Vegas City Life (April 30, 2009), 6; email from Bill Schafer to Dennis McBride, April 22, 2009 [author’s collection]; Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada press releases, April 21 and 22, 2009.
  8. Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada press releases, May 7, 22, 25, 26, 2009; Las Vegas Review-Journal (May 10, 2009), 3B; (May 13, 2009), 8B; (May 16, 2009), 1B, 11B; (May 20, 2009), 3B; (May 26, 2009), 1A-2A; Human Rights Campaign Las Vegas Political Committee press release, May 15, 2009; Las Vegas City Life (May 14, 2009), 6; Neal Broverman and Ross von Metzke, “Gay Tourists Abandon the Strip?” in [1], May 21 2009; [2], May 21 and 25, 2009; Night Beat (June 2009), 28; Las Vegas Sun (May 31, 2009), 4.
  9. Las Vegas Review-Journal (May 21, 2009), 1B, 5B; (May 31, 2009), 1A, 21A, 22A; (June 1, 2009), 1A, 5A, 2B; (June 2, 2009), 9B (June 7, 2009), 2D; email exchange among David Parks, Bill Schafer, Dennis McBride, Robert “Rob” Schlegel, and Denise Duarte about Jim Gibbons’ 1993 letter, May 21, 2009 [author’s collection]; Las Vegas Sun (May 27, 2009), 3; (May 28, 2009), 1, 3; (May 31, 2009), 1, 8; (June 5, 2009), 1, 3; Las Vegas City Life (May 28, 2009), 6, 13; (June 4, 2009), cover, 14-15; Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada press release (June 1, 2009); QVegas (July 2009), 16-18.