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September 23, 2014

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The Legislature:

Gibbons’ veto of rights for gay couples appears safe

Domestic partnership bill’s diverse support might not win override

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Domestic Partner Benefits

The biggest names in gaming call on lawmakers to override the governor's veto of domestic partner benefits. In Business talks with Harrah's Entertainment executive and former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones about the effort.

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Nevada has a long history of libertarianism, having welcomed gambling and prostitution while eschewing regulation and taxes.

But that legacy appears threatened in the closing days of the legislative session, as Gov. Jim Gibbons’ veto of a bill granting domestic partnership rights to straight and gay couples seems likely to be sustained.

Gibbons vetoed Senate Bill 283, which would create a new kind of civil contract that offers the same rights to a domestic partner as a marital spouse, though the bill specifically says the new class of civil contract is not marriage.

The bill passed with 26 votes in the Assembly and 12 in the Senate; it will need 28 and 14 to override the Gibbons veto.

Perhaps because of Nevada’s history of libertarianism, as well as the state tourism industry’s marketing of that ethos, the country is watching as legislators deliberate.

That attention, in turn, could have consequences.

Neal Broverman, who has been writing about the issue for a leading gay publication, The Advocate, said its readers are planning a boycott of Nevada’s tourism spots if the measure fails.

The threat of a boycott has energized the tourism industry, which is now lobbying the issue hard.

Las Vegas has become a popular destination for gay and lesbian travelers and a source of revenue for the Las Vegas Strip especially.

“Most of us in Nevada absolutely support gay and lesbian rights,” Jan Jones, the former Las Vegas mayor and senior vice president of Harrah’s Entertainment, told The Advocate. “This is a big fight. We’re not ready to give up. We want to override the veto.”

Governor’s rationale

The veto has sparked outrage among the bill’s advocates.

In the veto letter, Gibbons said the measure would “effectively bypass” the constitutional mandate against gay marriage — approved by voters in 2000 and 2002 — “by allowing the rights and privileges of marriage to be bestowed upon non-married persons.”

Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, called the claim “nonsense,” citing a section of the bill that specifically says the domestic partnerships are not marriage.

“It is debunked by every legal expert who has looked at the issue,” he said, citing attorneys for the Legislative Counsel Bureau, the office of the attorney general, as well as legal experts at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law.

As Peck noted, the campaign for the ballot initiative, called Question 2, specifically said the constitutional amendment was not an attempt to ban domestic partnerships.

Notably, similar marriage amendments in other states included provisions banning domestic partnerships, though that is not true of Nevada’s, Peck said.

Gibbons’ letter said only voters should be allowed to determine whether marriage rights apply to domestic partners.

Peck said that does not comport with basic constitutional principles.

Generally, rights are extended to minorities over the objections of the majority, not with the majority’s consent.

For instance, if the South had been given the opportunity to vote on rights extended to blacks via the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the measures would likely have failed.

Finally, Gibbons says in his letter that the rights extended by the bill are available through other means, such as wills and trusts.

Peck said obtaining these separate contracts would be costly and cumbersome and could be vulnerable to legal challenges.

“Someone could come into court and challenge all of it,” he said, laying out a potential scenario: “A mother could say, ‘I’m next of kin. I challenge this.’ Absent a domestic partnership law, that would make those contracts much more vulnerable to challenge,” he said.

Peck said a range of rights would be difficult to acquire through contracts, from the minor, such as being able to drive a car rented by a domestic partner, to the more meaningful, such as protection from being compelled to testify against a domestic partner in court; or the ability to claim alimony rights and a fair share of community property in case of separation.

The bill would not cost private or public employers anything, as they would have the choice to provide health benefits to domestic partners.

For state Sen. David Parks, the chief sponsor and the Legislature’s only openly gay member, dropping a mandate for health and other benefits from the bill must have been a bitter concession. He is a retired Las Vegas, Clark County and Regional Transportation Commission administrator who noted he has subsidized the benefits of his co-workers’ dependents for years though has never had access to benefits for his own family.

Where the issue stands

It will take a strong final push to override the veto.

For the bill’s champions, the vote, which could happen as soon as today, looks like an uphill battle.

Of the 12 Senate Democrats, all supported the measure except Sens. John Lee and Terry Care, who are said to oppose the measure on religious grounds.

Republican Sens. Randolph Townsend and Mike McGinness supported the bill when it passed.

Parks is hoping to turn the votes of Republican Sens. Dean Rhoads and Dennis Nolan.

Rhoads said he’s now on the fence, but is satisfied the bill is not an attempt to end-run the state constitution’s prohibition against gay marriage. Rhoads also said he has received twice as much correspondence in favor as against, including from heterosexual couples who want domestic partnerships rights.

Advocates for the bill are well organized and active.

Nolan said he’s still inclined to vote no but declined to comment further, saying he did not want to be barraged with more lobbying from both sides.

Nolan and other opponents may believe they have found political cover in a recent Review-Journal poll showing half of Nevadans are opposed to any recognition of civil unions, with 38 percent in favor.

The poll looks like an outlier, however, as most national polls now show that between 55 percent and 70 percent of Americans believe gays are entitled to legal protection, either through marriage or a civil contract like the measure proposed here.

One Nevada libertarian, who usually spends his time railing against regulation and taxes, sees a threat to the state’s live-and-let-live legacy.

Chuck Muth, a smash-mouth political operative, sent a letter to legislators urging them to override the veto.

The bill “only provides equal protection under the law for gay couples (and others) without violating the constitutional prohibition against calling such relationships ‘marriage,’ ” he wrote. “I urge you to vote to override the governor’s veto even if you originally voted against passage. It’s the right thing to do.”

He concludes: “Either that, or get the government completely out of the marriage business altogether.”

Sun reporter David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this report.

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