PI Original Angela Caputo Wednesday March 24th, 2010, 9:24am

The Politics Of Civil Unions

A legislative effort in Illinois to provide full legal protections to same-sex couples in civil unions might have to wait until after the November election.

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As we rang in 2010, we wondered if this would be the year that Illinois lawmakers would finally provide full legal protections to same-sex couples through civil unions. As far as gay-rights advocates were concerned, the answer was a resounding "Yes." Just to be sure, they signaled that they were prepared to unleash an army of lobbyists on the Statehouse to corral legislative support for State Rep. Greg Harris' (D-Chicago) civil unions bill. But with the countdown on for lawmakers to move their legislation this session, we haven't seen much momentum on behalf of SB 1716. While that may be true, Harris tells us that we shouldn't mistake the issue for dead.

After striking an agreement with House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) late last year, Harris' bill is among those that have been granted a deadline extension, currently set for April 30. But based on some behind-the-scenes political analysis from Equality Illinois' Rick Garcia, expectations that the measure will be called before the general election are pretty much nil. "Our best hope of passing it," he tells us, "is probably in the veto session." By that, he means the short session that's slated for early January of next year.

Despite the fact that Illinoisans' support for civil unions has grown dramatically over the past decade, some lawmakers are still reluctant to take a stance on the hot-button topic pre-election. Moreover, while it seemed that lawmakers were within striking distance of passing a civil unions bill just last year, turnover in the House -- more of which is expected this fall -- put the roll call in flux.

By Garcia's count, roughly 50 House lawmakers are currently on board. Once the April 5 deadline passes for political parties to slate last-minute opposition for the November elections, Garcia expects to see the number of supporters start to climb slowly toward 60.

Once enough lawmakers commit, Harris has positioned the bill to move swiftly. Similar to some clever legislative maneuvering he attempted last year, Harris has tacked the language onto an already-approved Senate measure. Once SB 1716 makes it out of the House, it will only need a vote of concurrence for approval in the Senate.

At this point, Harris isn't setting any timelines for when the bill might pass. For now, he and other civil union supporters are playing the waiting game until they get a chance to see who moves into office following the general election. "We'll have to see who we'll have to work with," Harris says. "We'll move it when we see an opening and we have the votes."

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