Advocates optimistic about trans bill’s fate, history says otherwise
Students of the state legislature know that when lawmakers want to kill a bill without taking a vote on its merits, they vote to send it to a committee for further study. Exhibit A? Gov. Deval Patrick's casino gambling bill. The full House disposed of the bill by sending it to a study committee rather than taking a vote on the bill itself, effectively killing the measure for the duration of this legislative session. A universal health care bill put forward via initiative petition? Killed in 2007 when it was moved to a study committee. Back in 2000, a "defense of marriage" bill was done away with by being sent to a study committee.
The latest potential victim? House Bill 1722, a measure filed last year by state Rep. Carl Sciortino that would add trans-inclusive language to the state's non-discrimination and hate crimes laws. On March 19 lawmakers on the Joint Committee of the Judiciary voted to send it off for further study rather than voting it out of committee for consideration by the full House. The Massachusetts Family Institute and its grassroots offshoot, the Coalition for Marriage and Family, both of which lobbied against the bill, declared victory last week, sending e-mail alerts to their supporters saying that the measure was "effectively dead."
Longtime State House observers Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a non-profit that advocates for government accountability, and Susan Tracy, a communications consultant who was a state representative during the 1990s, both said in interviews this week that based on their past experience, getting the legislation out of committee and through the legislature may be an uphill battle.
Cautioning that she was not familiar with the debate around the bill, Wilmot said that given that there are just a few months left in the session and with debate on the budget expected to consume much of the remaining time, the trans rights bill faces long odds.
"Where there's a will, there's a way, and the question is, is there the will in that committee, and are there specific questions the chairs have that need to be answered, or is it a way of killing it softly, not saying no? The majority of studies are the latter, but there certainly are many instances where there is work being done to look into some issues [around a piece of legislation]," said Wilmot. "It doesn't mean committees won't do things or report things out, but it's less likely than earlier in the process."
Tracy noted that new legislation, particularly legislation on a topic unfamiliar to lawmakers, rarely passes on the first attempt. "There are 8000 bills filed each year. The vast majority of them don't pass," said Tracy, who, like Wilmot, cautioned that she is not familiar with the bill. "Most things don't pass the first time they're filed if they have any degree of education associated with them."
Arline Isaacson, co-chair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus, who has lobbied in favor of the bill, said that the bill was a victim of bad timing. Some legislators who voted to defeat the constitutional amendment to ban civil marriage rights for same-sex couples at the constitutional convention (ConCon) last June, she said, are worried about taking two risky pro-LGBT votes in the same session. With this year's elections on the horizon, some lawmakers are waiting to see if the LGBT community keeps its promise and works on behalf of the reelection campaigns of incumbents who stood with the community during the marriage fight.
"This is the election after the ConCon where they are most nervous about any issue, and they want to see our community work hard in their elections, which of course we will," said Isaacson. "And if they win, they will be much more ready, much more open, much more willing to vote with us on this bill."
Others remain optimistic about the bill's chances, however. Rep. Marti Walz (D-Boston), a judiciary committee member and a co-sponsor of H.B. 1722, said that the decision to send the bill to study was designed to give the committee more time to consider the issue. She explained that the committee had a deadline to take action on all of its bills by March 19, but its hearing on the trans rights bill came only two weeks before that deadline, on March 4 (see "Advocates turn out en masse for transgender civil rights bill," March 6). During that hearing the committee heard more than 10 hours of testimony and received reams of written testimony on the bill.
"[I]t remains possible that the legislature will take up the bill later in the spring or into the summer," said Walz, adding that she was "cautiously optimistic" that lawmakers would vote on the bill before the July 31 end of the session.
Matt McTighe, political director of MassEquality, which is part of the lobby team behind the effort to pass H.B. 1722, said the committee's delay in taking action on the bill was good news for the bill's proponents. "I think it's better for our community to have more time to educate people about the bill. ... Once they understand the issue at hand they really get it," said McTighe, who added that MassEquality and its coalition partners are setting up meetings between lawmakers and transgender people in their districts to educate legislators about transgender identity and the discrimination that trans people face. He also said they are enlisting attorneys to do briefings for lawmakers on what the legislation does and the legal impact it would have on the state.
He expressed confidence the bill will emerge from study this session, though he declined to say whether advocates had received assurances from the committee co-chairs, Sen. Robert Creedon (D-Brockton) and Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty (D-Chelsea), that the bill would come up again before the end of the session. Neither Creedon nor O'Flaherty returned calls to comment for this story.
Gunner Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), the lead organization in the coalition to pass H.B. 1722, said opponents have jumped the gun in declaring the bill dead.
"There's the fact that we have support from the governor and the attorney general [Martha Coakley] and other leaders, that it doesn't mean that it has to be going away anytime soon," said Scott.
He said MTPC's focus now is to educate the legislature as a whole in anticipation of a potential vote before the full House and Senate.
Toward that end, MTPC is ramping up a campaign to encourage supporters to send letters to their legislators telling their personal stories and asking them to support H.B. 1722. In the next week, Scott said, MTPC will be making available letter writing kits via its website (www.masstpc.org).
Scott also said MTPC is continuing to urge supporters to set up meetings with their legislators to talk about the bill and share their stories. He said those meetings can help lawmakers understand the barriers they face in employment, public accommodations, and other areas targeted by the bill.
MTPC will also work to answer any questions members of the Judiciary Committee have on H.B. 1722, although Scott said since the hearing MTPC has not heard any direct comments from the committee. The primary objection raised by opponents of the bill at the hearing was about the bill's public accommodations protections; Massachusetts Family Institute raised the specter of sexual predators using the protections afforded by the bill to put on dresses and assault women in bathrooms and locker rooms. But Scott said based on his work as a transgender issues trainer he does not believe the bathroom argument will sway lawmakers, particularly when they learn that a growing number of businesses have adopted similar policies for their employees without incident.