A bill aimed at altering Salt Lake City’s proposed domestic partnership registry sailed through the House on March 5 – the final day of the 2008 legislative session – on a vote of 61 to 9. A proposed amendment to the bill that would have destroyed the registry was also narrowly voted down.

Authored by Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, SB 299 Revision to Local Government served as a replacement for a controversial bill authored by Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, that would have eliminated the capital city’s registry. The Salt Lake City Council unanimously approved Mayor Ralph Becker’s measure to create the registry in January.

After Buttars’ bill was sent back to the Senate Rules Committee on Feb. 22, Bell stepped up to craft similar legislation. But when Salt Lake City attorneys noted that the first draft of SB 299 would kill the registry and a program allowing city employees to name non-spousal adult designees on their health insurance policies, Bell introduced a substitute for the bill. The new draft left the adult designee program and the registry standing. However, it also prohibited any municipal registries from granting “legal status” or recognition to relationships other than marriage, including domestic partnerships.

In an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Becker described SB 299 as allowing the registry to stand in everything but name.

“If this bill passes as currently written and is signed by the governor, we will find another term [rather than domestic partnership] and keep the substance of our current registry,” Becker said.

Although the bill also contained a clause allowing signers of the registry hospital visitation rights, this language was deleted during Senate debates. Sen. Bell, however, assured the Senate that hospital visitation could be granted by the registry.

“We want to make it clear that the bill as passed does allow hospital visitation,” said Will Carlson, Manager of Public Policy of Equality Utah.

The Senate approved the bill on March 3.

The night before SB 299 was scheduled to appear on the House floor, local gay rights group Equality Utah informed the public that an amendment would be introduced that would restore the bill to what Buttars initially had in mind.

“If that amendment is adopted by the House and approved by the Senate, Salt Lake City's registry will be halted and family members of city employees may lose their health coverage,” wrote Carlson in an email release.

The amendment in was introduced Wednesday morning by Rep. Michael Noel, R-Kanab. While saying he had “no question” about seeing domestic partners of city employees get health insurance, Noel said that other benefits the registry might offer prompted him to attempt to restore the original bill’s intention. He said that his substitute bill would still let city employees include “financially dependent” adults on their health insurance plans and that it would keep city and county governments from recognizing a marriage-like relationship that would conflict with Utah law. As municipal governments like Salt Lake County have recently shown interest in creating similar registries, Noel said his amendment was necessary to keep local governments in line with state law.

Utah voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 defining marriage as the union between a man and a woman and forbidding the recognition of civil unions. The amendment is still known today by the name Amendment 3.

“The reason we’re having this discussion is because we have an obligation to protect traditional marriage,” said Noel. He added that his bill would send “a strong message to local government … that they will comply with intent and spirit of Amendment 3.”

In speaking against Noel’s amendment, openly lesbian Rep. Jackie Biskupski, D-Salt Lake City, said that legislation’s language would hurt Salt Lake City’s adult designee program by limiting eligible designees to financial dependents. She pointed out that some recipients are parents of city employees who have jobs, but not health insurance. If the amendment was approved, Biskupski said such people would have to choose between working and receiving medical coverage.

“The restriction really gets in the way of what the city is trying to do, which is get as many people insured as they can and offer the same type of benefits to each employee,” she said.

Biskupski also said that Noel’s amendment was too limited because it only addressed health care, not other benefits that came with the city’s employee benefits program, such as bereavement – coverage, including time off from work, offered in the event of the adult beneficiary’s death.

“Why would we want to take away opportunity for someone to have some bereavement-type coverage,” she asked.

Rep. Kay Mcliff, R-Richfield, also spoke against the amendment, saying that his party’s support of Bell’s bill showed that SB 299 didn’t need any more tweaking.

All Senate Republicans are listed as co-sponsors to Bell’s bill.

“It has been crafted with extreme care to make a statement regarding marriage but without going overboard to make other statements,” Mcliff said.

The amendment failed by a narrow vote of 36-34. A request by Rep. Wayne Harper, R-West Jordan, to circle the bill to give Representatives more time to consider amending the bill further was also denied.

Having passed both legislative houses, the bill will now head to Gov. Jon Huntsman’s desk. A spokesman for the governor’s office said that Huntsman intends to sign the bill pending legal review.

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