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Equality bill hits a snag
House’s second Democrat wants vote delayed for her statewide run
Columbus--A state equality bill that was expected to get a vote this summer could be delayed for over a year if the Ohio House’s second-highest Democrat gets her way.
House Majority Floor Leader Jennifer Garrison of Marietta wants the Equal Housing and Employment Act to wait until after the November 2010 election, according to some of her colleagues, so that she can run for secretary of state without having to answer for her vote on it.
The bill, also known as EHEA or H.R. 176, prohibits discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations. It passed the State Government Committee 8-5 on June 17 and could be voted on by the entire House at any time.
Twenty-one other states have similar measures, including one passed last week in Delaware. No federal protections exist.
There have been six House sessions since the bill cleared the committee, most consumed by budget matters. Legislators and the governor could not agree on a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, and the state is running on temporary resolutions until an agreement can be reached.
But the House has voted on other matters in those six sessions, expanding domestic violence laws to include foster parents, changing the licensing of dental assistants and proposing a constitutional amendment to set livestock care standards.
Some EHEA supporters are concerned that delaying the vote will hurt its chances to pass during the present two-year session, requiring it to be reintroduced for the next one in 2011.
The measure’s Democratic sponsor, Dan Stewart of Columbus, is not concerned with the bill’s speed so far, but also sees no benefit in it lingering.
“I don’t want it to come up on a budget vote,” Stewart said. “People won’t be focused on anything but the budget, but if we’re passing other legislation, I want it to move.”
The bill now has between 53 and 61 “Yes” votes in the 99-member House, depending on who is asked. Fifty votes are needed to pass it. The chamber has 53 Democrats and 46 Republicans.
Stewart believes that 8 to 12 Republicans will join 51 Democrats in voting for the bill, when it comes to the House floor.
Speaker Budish wants a quick vote
House Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood made it clear on Equality Ohio’s lobby day in May that he would move the bill quickly.
His spokesperson, Keary McCarthy, stood by that commitment on June 30.
But Garrison has been quietly pulling in the other direction.
One of the most socially conservative Democrats in the General Assembly, colleagues say Garrison is very influential with Budish.
She is running for secretary of state next year, and will face Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown in the Democratic primary. Brown is backed by current Secretary Jennifer Brunner, who is running for U.S. Senate. The winner will face either Republican State Sen. Jon Husted or former Ashtabula County Treasurer Sandy O’Brien.
Garrison already has a rocky relationship with the LGBT community. She won her House seat by gay-baiting her predecessor, Nancy Hollister, in 2004.
Earlier that year, Hollister was the only Republican to vote against the so-called “defense of marriage act.” It was considered a courageous vote.
Garrison sent out mailings that read, “If you believe marriage is between one man and one woman, there’s something you should know about Nancy Hollister.”
The other side of the card said, “DOMA was enacted precisely to protect Ohioans from having to accept ‘marriages’ or ‘unions’ entered into in other states. Despite the value of DOMA, Nancy Hollister voted against it. Jennifer Garrison believes marriage is between one man and one woman and will fight to protect our values.”
In 2006, as a member of the House Education Committee, Garrison helped to kill an amendment that would have required Ohio schools to protect students from bullying for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
The anti-bullying bill passed without the LGBT protections.
An attorney, Garrison opposed EHEA last year, saying it is wrong to single out classes of people for protection. This is a common talking point that anti-gays use against equality laws, and is legally flawed.
Garrison told a group of Equality Ohio volunteers who visited her in May that she believes “no one should be discriminated against,” adding, “I will read the bill.”
She added that she would wait to see what kind of support the bill gets in committee before deciding how she will vote.
Garrison now supports EHEA
Since May, Garrison has changed her view on the bill.
She did not talk directly to the Gay People’s Chronicle, but issued a statement through McCarthy.
“Rep. Garrison supports H.B. 176 and opposes discrimination in any form,” said McCarthy.
However, Garrison was also asked, through McCarthy and her legislative aide, about her attempts to delay the bill’s floor vote.
Her statement is silent on that matter.
Democratic House members and staffers, all speaking to the Chronicle under condition of anonymity, recounted conversations and communications Garrison had about the bill.
They believe, to a person, that Garrison doesn’t want the vote on her record at all as she enters the secretary of state race.
If Garrison opposes EHEA, they opine, it will be used against her in the primary against the progressive Brown. If she votes for it, conservatives that she is courting for the general election will use that against her.
“It’s really sad when someone puts personal politics ahead of a bill like [EHEA] that is so fundamental to our core principles as Democrats,” said one frustrated House member.
Garrison is also anti-choice, and scores favorably with those interests, who are generally anti-gay, and will be scoring votes for EHEA unfavorably.
House to recess until fall
After a budget is passed, the House will recess for the summer and likely not return until September.
Delaying the vote until the end of 2010, as members say Garrison wants, will not give the Senate much time with it, essentially killing any chance it has there at all.
“That’s not acceptable to me,” said Stewart, of the possibility of a long delay.
According to Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman, this is not the first time Garrison has tried to delay votes on this bill.
Bowman said Garrison was originally advocating for the committee to delay action on it, too.
“Jennifer didn’t want the bill to go forward last year,” said Bowman. “She was worried that it would hurt candidates.”
When the bill was before the House last year, the Democrats were trying to win the majority they now have. The bill died in the House after only one committee hearing.
Garrison also appears to be worried about the vote’s possible effect on Democrats who narrowly won their seats in conservative districts.
She has reportedly taken some of those members aside and told them voting for EHEA is “risky” and “dangerous” for them in the next election.
At this point, according to Stewart and Equality Ohio, these efforts have not appeared to dissuade anyone. But if the delay is long enough, that could change, too.
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