Some Republicans question same-sex marriage vote before budget is done

Rally security
A state patrol officer contained attendees of a same-sex marriage rally, including Richard Buggs of Lansboro, Minn., right, at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, May 19, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Minnesota House could take up a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage as early as Friday.

House Republican leaders have been mostly forthcoming about their legislative schedules and floor activity, but they've been mum about when they intend to take up the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. And there may be good reason for that.

"I would prefer us to get these budget issues done before we take up divisive social issues or a Vikings stadium," said Rep. Denny McNamara, R-Hastings.

McNamara is the chair of the House Environment Committee. He said he intends to vote for the constitutional amendment, but doesn't think lawmakers should consider it until they reach a deal to balance the budget. He said the constitutional amendment can be dealt with later.

"I certainly would never want to be taking up any kind of divisive issues that can wait until next year when we have budget issues before us and an opportunity to finish them," he said.

The politics behind the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage seem clear for Republicans. The Senate already passed it, with every Republican and one Democrat voting for it. If the House follows suit, the question would be put on the 2012 ballot.

Mass of ralliers
Supporters and opponents of amending the state's constitution to ban same-sex marriage gathered near the House chambers during a rally at the Capitol in St. Paul, Minn. Thursday, May 19, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The issue has been a focal point in the final days of the legislative session. Hundreds of protesters were at the Capitol Thursday on both sides of the issue.

With a vote pending, it isn't clear how many of the 72 Republicans in the House support the measure. Only two, John Kriesel of Cottage Grove and Tim Kelly of Red Wing, have publicly voiced their opposition to the amendment. Kriesel said he's hearing some uneasiness from his GOP colleagues on the issue.

"At this point, you would think this would be a slam dunk, but it's not," Kriesel said. "It's clearly not, and I'm proud of that because I'm proud of the fact that people are thinking about it."

Rep. Steve Gottwalt, R-St. Cloud, is the sponsor of the amendment. He said he isn't sure if it will come up for a vote this year, but he thinks it should because he wants to give voters enough time to fully vet the issue.

"Minnesotans deserve some time to talk about this. If we wait until next year, we're giving them a few months," Gottwalt said. "As you've seen and I've heard, there is a lot of passion on both sides of this issue. It's a very important issue to a lot of people, and they deserve to have a lot of time to have that discussion."

But voting on the measure presents a potential political problem for Republicans. Legislative leaders have repeatedly said fixing the two-year budget is their top priority. The Legislature just finished passing its budget bills, but Gov. Mark Dayton has said he will veto them because Republicans won't compromise with him on a tax increase. That means Republicans could finish the session on Monday with no budget deal and a divisive social issue on its way to the ballot.

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-St. Louis Park, said Democrats are prepared to point out to the voters what he characterizes as misplaced priorities.

"Minnesotans wanted us, at the beginning of the session, to focus on jobs and on balancing the state budget," Simon said. "Those are our two big jobs and to the extent we were off doing other issues, no matter how important to folks, I think will be a real problem for the legislative leadership."

One problem for Democrats is that the issue of same-sex marriage doesn't fall along party lines. Simon and other Democrats say it's possible a few Democrats could vote for the measure. Gov. Dayton doesn't have a say in constitutional amendments but told reporters he intends to work against the measure if it lands on the ballot.

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