Guv, at odds with most Utahns, backs civil unions for gays
Here is a sentence you probably never expected to read: Utah's governor supports civil unions.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a spokeswoman said Monday, backs Equality Utah's Common Ground Initiative, a legislative effort that would provide some rights to gay and transgender Utahns. Even more, the Republican governor favors civil unions.
It's a position that runs counter to his political party and against the majority of Utahns -- 70 percent of whom oppose civil unions, according to a recent Salt Lake Tribune poll.
"He's long supported many of the ideas that are presented within the Common Ground Initiative," said Lisa Roskelley, the governor's spokeswoman, noting her boss waits to endorse specific bills officially until presented to him in final form. "He supports civil unions."
It's doubtful Huntsman's backing will lead to civil unions getting past the conservative Legislature. And it may not help the rest of this year's gay-rights legislative push, which already has shrunk from four bills to two.
On Day Two of the 2009 Legislature, a measure died in committee that would have allowed financial dependents -- besides spouses, parents and children -- to sue in the event of a breadwinner's wrongful death.
And last week, Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, ditched her proposal, which would have sought the Legislature's and voters' approval to erase the second part of Amendment 3 -- Utah's constitutional gay-marriage ban -- that forbids civil unions.
Huntsman, who endorsed Amendment 3 when he ran for governor in 2004, now favors repealing that portion, Roskelley said.
She said the governor was unavailable to comment Monday.
Jeff Reynolds, spokesman for the conservative Salt Lake City-based Sutherland Institute think tank, which opposes the Common Ground Initiative, said he's "not surprised" by Huntsman's softened stand.
"He had to be dragged to the altar of Amendment 3," Reynolds said in an e-mail, "and everyone has known since then that Governor Huntsman would rather be nice than right."
Biskupski was pleased by the news that Huntsman supports civil unions.
"Wow. That's absolutely fantastic. I wish the rest of the state felt the same way," she said. "That's definitely a door to walk through."
Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, and House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, did not respond to requests for comment on Huntsman's position. Neither did Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan and a high-profile Common Ground foe.
Of the remaining Common Ground bills, one would make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay or transgender. The other would allow two, unmarried cohabiting adults to file a "declaration of joint support" with their county recorder and gain benefits of inheritance and medical-decision making.
"We appreciate that the governor sees these are common-sense solutions to problems that Utahns are facing," said Will Carlson, Equality Utah's public-policy manager. "We'll take all the help we can get."
Still, he acknowledged the governor's support won't necessarily sway any votes on Capitol Hill. "It sure didn't help liquor laws or cigarette taxes much," Carlson noted.
But he said the governor could make the difference on a nonlegislative piece of the Common Ground Initiative: extending state employees' health benefits to domestic partners.
Roskelley said the governor supports the concept but insisted the change would have to be done legislatively. Carlson said the Legislature's OK would be needed only if the policy change requires additional appropriations. But he said the cost of expanding health benefits would be "negligible."
Tribune reporter Derek P. Jensen contributed to this story.
Although down to two bills, Equality Utah and other gay-rights advocates will continue to fight for enhanced protections for gay and transgender people through the following measures:
Fair housing and employment » HB267 would make it illegal to fire an employee or evict a tenant for being gay or transgender. Sponsor: Rep. Christine Johnson, D-Salt Lake City.
Domestic-partner rights » HB160 would allow same-sex couples to file "declarations of joint support" that would provide rights of inheritance and medical-decision making. Sponsor: Rep. Jennifer Seelig, D-Salt Lake City.