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POLITICS AS USUAL (By Jim Baron) A very busy week at the Statehouse

February 14, 2011

Last week was quite a busy one at the Statehouse.
Twin River started things off by renewing its push to have table games like craps, blackjack, poker and the like to elevate it from a mere slot parlor to a full casino. Then there was the Health Department hearings on the proposed medical marijuana compassion centers and Sen. Josh Miller’s bill to decriminalize small amounts of the drug.
A well-attended hearing was held on bringing back former Gov. Donald Carcieri’s executive order on illegal immigration and then a massively-attended hearing on one bill to legalize gay marriage and another to put the issue to a voter referendum (that one went on until a quarter ‘til two the next morning). House Speaker Gordon Fox appointed a committee to look into the fiscal crisis bearing down on many cities and towns and proposed some new House rules that would appear to, among other things, stop the practice of railroading legislation through in the wee hours of the morning when lawmakers have already been working nine or 10 hours or more.
Leave it to House Minority Leader Robert Watson to tie everything into a neat little package. Speaking to the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and, as usual, carping about the priorities of the General Assembly and other state officials, Watson said, “I suppose if you are a gay man from Guatemala who gambles and smokes pot, you probably think we are on to some good ideas here.” That is vintage Watson, as anyone who has watched him try to put up a strong front on the House floor for his tiny Republican minority can attest. His floor speeches are perhaps the wittiest — although with a kind of dark, sarcastic and often stinging humor — of all his colleagues.
Of course a big hubbub is arising over Watson’s latest jape. Guatemalans are miffed at the reference, which appears to equate them to illegal immigration, and they are ready to hold protests and call press conferences. That seems a bit over the top.
I haven’t had a chance to talk to Watson about this dust-up, but it is pretty clear that it was not the minority leader’s intention to disparage Guatemalans. Some of the illegal aliens in Rhode Island are from Guatemala, among many other countries, but unless I miss my guess, Watson singled out Guatemala because of the alliteration its G creates with gay and gambling.
To impute racism or ethnic slur to his statement takes it far beyond the speaker’s intent. (That’s speaker with a lower-case s; Watson has a long way to go before he gets to be called Speaker with a capital S.)
Just using the term “illegal aliens,” as I did a few sentences ago, can get you eyed warily as a potential racist, but the term is descriptive. It refers to a non-citizen (it does not necessarily mean “Martian,” as one speaker at the public hearing suggested last week) who is in the country unlawfully. I guess we could call them unlawful aliens, but that would be a distinction without a difference.
As I have said before, illegal aliens are not this state’s biggest problem and the opposition to them is far out of proportion to any problems they create. That being said, after sitting through yet another hearing on E-Verify, I can’t come up with a good reason why it shouldn’t be used to screen people newly hired by the state or by its contractors and vendors or the organizations that get state grants. For that matter, I can’t make a good argument why it shouldn’t be used by all employers to ensure that the workers they hire are in this country legally. Even if the program shows a potential problem with a subject’s immigration status — called a tentative non-confirmation in federal bureaucratese — that person gets to keep working while the problem is being investigated.
If you listen long and hard enough to the people who oppose E-Verify and other steps to curb illegal immigration, you will find that they really don’t want any immigration laws to be enforced, period. That is just as unrealistic as those who want to immediately deport all illegal immigrants on sight. This is another one of those difficult issues where we must find some middle ground where none seems to exist.
Same thing with same-sex marriage.
Proponents and opponents seem to be unreconcileable, but it would be counterproductive to just let the argument go on forever.
Those who favor marriage equality, understandably, do not want to accept any “lesser” status such as civil unions or other half-measures. Besides, despite any state laws, there are rights and benefits conferred on married couples by the federal government that are unreachable by compromised, separate-but-not-quite-equal civil unions. Opponents balk at overturning thousands of years of traditional understanding of what the institution of marriage is and means. As always, anytime when religious beliefs get intertwined with governmental matters, it raises the emotional heat and makes compromise even more difficult.
But no matter what the traditionalists say, marriage in the context we are talking about really has nothing to do with religion. You don’t need a church or a synagogue or a mosque to be married. The ceremony does not need to be conducted by a priest, a minister, a rabbi or an imam. You can be married without any of that.
What you do need is a license from City Hall or Town Hall. A judge or other government-approved layman can officiate. That makes it a secular function. A secular function operated under the aegis of government has no place discriminating against any segment of society, including homosexuals.
Why not define ALL marriages for what they are, civil contracts between two adults?
The opponents of gay marriage this year seemed to aim many of their arguments toward children, and how “redefining” marriage would weaken the bond between parents and children.
I found those arguments unpersuasive.
Yes, there will be gay and lesbian couples who adopt children, or raise children that were the result of one or both partner’s previous heterosexual relationships, but most gay couples are not going to have or don’t want to have children. They simply want their relationship with the one they love to be recognized and respected by society as equal to heterosexual married couples. Opponents, many of whom disapprove of homosexuality on religious or moral grounds won’t stand for that.
I have the feeling that tolerance will win out in the end, but there is no way to tell how long that is going to take.
The same thing goes for marijuana.
The common sense of decriminalizing a drug that millions of people around the world use with little negative effects except the consequences of it being illegal will win out some day, but how long it will take for the political class to come to that realization no one can say.
So the General Assembly will keep fighting over these issues, but thanks to the new House rules, one of which would prohibit the chamber from taking up new legislation after 11:30 p.m., those fights won’t go late into the night.
The one problem with that is starting debates on a bill after 11:30 is something that doesn’t usually happen until the last days of the session and the first thing the House does in the last days of the session is suspend the rules. We’ll have to see how this works out.

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