Minnesota appears poised to legalize gay marriage, as the Democratic speaker of the state House said this week that a gay marriage bill endorsed by the governor and likely to pass in the state Senate also now has enough backing in his chamber.
The House will vote on the measure today (May 9), and if it passes, the Democratic-led Senate could vote on it as soon as May 11.
House Speaker Paul Thissen, of Minneapolis, said that the 73-member Democratic majority he leads will produce at least the 68 votes needed to pass the bill. Senate leaders are also confident of passage, and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has promised to sign the bill, which would allow gay couples to marry as of Aug. 1.
"I think it's in line with the tradition we've had in Minnesota about respecting people, making sure everybody is included in our community and the fullness of participation in that," Thissen said.
If the bill passes, it would mark a stunning about-face on the issue in Minnesota, where only six months ago voters were asked whether they wanted to enshrine the current gay marriage ban in the state constitution. They didn't.
No House Republicans have committed to vote for the bill. Thissen said while their votes are not needed, they would be appreciated. "It's not a partisan issue. You've seen many prominent Republicans speak out on this issue," Thissen said. One Senate Republican, Branden Petersen of Andover, publicly supports the bill.
Fifth-term Rep. Pat Garofalo, a Republican from Farmington, told The Associated Press he decided this week he would oppose the bill, saying he had concerns about the adequacy of religious protections. He said he preferred an alternate civil union proposal that would extend gay couples more legal rights, but wouldn't allow them to marry.
"We would be much better off unifying the state behind civil unions," Garofalo said. Another Republican, Rep. Tim Kelly planned to push an amendment Thursday to swap gay marriage for civil unions.
Unable to count on any Republican support, House Democrats have had to rely on support from several party members from rural, more socially conservative areas where voters strongly backed last fall's failed proposed gay marriage ban. But in recent days, a number of those members have come out in support of the bill.
"My brother is gay," said Rep. Shannon Savick, DFL-Albert Lea, who said she'd vote for the bill. "I watched my brother being discriminated against when we were younger. I just don't see why he shouldn't be able to marry the person he loves. I did."
Savick acknowledged the decision could cost her votes in 2014, when all House members are back on the ballot. A handful of House Democrats are still publicly undecided, and the House leaders wouldn't say exactly how many votes they had.
"It could cost me the election. I represent a very conservative area," Savick said. "I hope I do enough good in other areas that they'll overlook that."
Thissen and Majority Leader Erin Murphy said they met privately with undecided members but that Democrats weren't pressured.
"This is not an issue that is subject to arm-twisting," said Murphy, of St. Paul. "This is an issue where members really have to reach their own conclusion and vote what they think is right for Minnesota."
On Tuesday, the Senate Finance Committee approved the bill on a split voice vote as Republicans raised concerns that legalizing gay marriage could cause unanticipated costs to Minnesota's courts.
Last year's general election results reflected an apparent shift in the public's attitude toward gay marriage. In addition to Minnesota's defeat of the proposed gay marriage ban, voters legalized gay marriage in three other states - Maine, Maryland and Washington.
Delaware became the 11th state to legalize gay marriage this week when Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation approved by the state Senate less than an hour earlier. Last week, Rhode Island became the 10th state to legalize gay marriage. In the Midwest, Iowa has had legal gay marriage since a 2009 judicial ruling. The Minnesota bill would make it the first Midwestern state to take the step by legislative vote, although the Illinois Legislature also is considering a bill to legalize gay marriage.
Richard Carlbom, who heads Minnesotans United, a group that campaigned against last fall's amendment and has subsequently pushed the gay marriage bill through the legislative process, said the group has been conservative in its vote counting, and that commitments from legislators have been double- and triple-checked.
Carlbom said he hoped those inclined to vote `no' would consider the long view.
"The vote that will be taken in the House on Thursday will be remembered for the next 100 years," he said.