This year should be different.
That's the motto domestic partnership advocates carry with them as the 60-day legislative session commences on Jan. 20.
For two years, supporters have seen the domestic partnership bill pass the House only to get squashed in the Senate. Many new legislators will head to the capital in 2009, and advocates say several are likely to support the bill. Domestic partnership-friendly lawmakers are replacing senators who were not sympathetic to the cause.
Democratic Rep. Mimi Stewart, who is sponsoring the legislation in the House, says she's optimistic about her bill's odds of survival. "I think we have a better chance of passing it than we did before," Stewart says. "We've increased the number of legislators in both houses who are more open and not tied to outdated, outmoded views."
Gov. Bill Richardson said in 2008 that he supports domestic partnerships. If the bill makes it to his desk, he's likely to sign it.
Stewart's bill establishes that two unmarried people who live together as a committed couple are subject to the same privileges and responsibilities as a married couple. Gay and straight couples could become domestic partners in the state's eyes after completing the necessary paperwork and paying a fee to the county clerk.
Republican Sen. Clinton Harden says he voted against last year's domestic partnership bill for moral reasons. "I will not support any legislation that defines marriage as anything except between a man and a woman," Harden says. "I've always opposed that, and will continue to oppose that."
Republican Sen. Steven Neville says the legislation is too close to marriage. "It says it's not, but it has all the rights, responsibilities and obligations of marriage," Neville says. "So it is marriage, any way you look at it."
Democratic Sen. Cisco McSorley, who is sponsoring an identical bill in the Senate, says the legislation is not a threat to marriage. "You're either married or you're not," McSorley says. "Marriage is a whole separate concept and has a whole different set of implications that this bill doesn't touch." For instance, he adds, there are religious connotations and benefits this measure will not hamper.
The legislation would allow couples to make medical decisions for their loved ones if they become ill. Domestic partners could also receive inheritances without a will and could access state retirement benefits. They would not see the same Social Security benefits as married couples because those are handled at the federal level. Federal tax benefits tied to marriage would also not be available to domestic partners.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, says passing the bill would score a major victory for same-sex couples. "Gay and lesbian couples should enjoy the same legal rights and protections that married couples in our state enjoy," Simonson says. "We feel like the state should let gay men and lesbian women care for and support each other as their conscience dictates."
Simonson contends that many other New Mexicans stand to gain from the legislation as well. He mentions people who don't want to get married and elderly couples who would lose their pensions by tying the knot as examples.
For McSorley, the bill offers a chance to increase civil rights. "We are just trying to give people one more avenue of free expression in how they can live their lives," McSorley says.
Stewart maintains the legislation helps family units of all sorts. "Our current system of denying these familial rights to anyone who is not married really is promoting government-sponsored discrimination," Stewart says. "We need to acknowledge that the reality of the world is that every family is not like 'Leave it to Beaver.' ”