The House of Delegates gave preliminary approval yesterday to a bill that would give unmarried adult couples the right to register one another to make decisions on their behalf in the event of death, illness or injury.
The House, rushing to complete business before the legislature's scheduled April 12 adjournment, also gave final approval yesterday to legislation that would close an important loophole in campaign finance laws that lets certain businesses, mostly developers, give campaign contributions far in excess of the limits that apply to individuals and other businesses.
The Medical Decision-Making Act of 2004 was originally crafted to extend to same-sex couples and unmarried seniors the rights that married couples have to make medical and post-mortem decisions for each other. It would have created a state "life-partnership" registry to which gays and couples over age 62 could add their names to facilitate hospital access and decisions such as funeral arrangements or whether to perform an autopsy.
Del. Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Baltimore County minister who has opposed homosexual rights measures, offered the amendment opening "life-partnerships" to adults in a committed relationship, regardless of age or sexual identity.
"I do think medical decisions should be made by lifelong partners, even if they're the same sex," the Democrat told his fellow delegates in a rare Saturday voting session. "But what about those heterosexual couples who have been lifelong partners?"
Burns' amendment passed yesterday by a 69-62 vote. Six members declined to vote on the amendment, and another four were absent. An identical amendment failed in a committee vote the day before.
`Jet fuel' added
Some of those who voted for the amendment on the House floor apparently saw their votes as a way to kill the bill. But the bill's sponsor, Health and Government Operations Committee Chairman John Adams Hurson, said broadening the definition of life partners might make the legislation more palatable to lawmakers worried that the original bill gave special rights to homosexuals.
"It gives it jet fuel. I think it's going to pass fairly easily now," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "If it's a good idea for one group, it's a good idea for all groups."
The legislation, while extending rights to gays and lesbians, is no longer strictly a gay rights bill.
Some conservative legislators said the change could win their support.
"The amendment has moved away from the same-sex marriage issue to more of a general concern," said Del. Carmen Amedori, a Carroll County Republican who said she would consider voting for the measure.
Not all conservatives agreed. House Minority Whip Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell supported Burns' amendment but said later that he would vote against sending the amended bill to the Senate when the legislative session resumes tomorrow afternoon.
"I think the amendment made it better, but it didn't fix it," said O'Donnell, who represents Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
Among O'Donnell's concerns are such questions as: If every adult Marylander eligible to join the registry did so, could administering the list become unmanageable? Would estranged couples have to announce the dissolution of their relationships to the state's health agency, which would be responsible for maintaining and updating the registry? And might not unmarried heterosexual couples, able to avail themselves of end-of-life decision-making benefits, be discouraged from tying the knot?
"The questions here I don't think have been well-vetted," O'Donnell said. "We think people who love each other should be able to share end-of-life issues. I just think there are processes in place where people can do advance directives and that sort of thing to make it happen."
The campaign finance bill, which goes to the Senate, passed yesterday afternoon, but first the House leadership had to persuade a group of doubtful Democrats to change their votes after a morning roll call left the bill two votes short of the number needed for approval.
Supporters were not able to achieve a veto-proof margin of 85 votes. The bill was approved 78-57, with most Republicans opposing it.
The loophole has been used aggressively by supporters of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, among other politicians.
In other action:
The Women's Caucus in the House staged a successful revolt against a bill approved by the Judiciary Committee that would have changed the legal presumption in child custody cases in favor of joint custody arrangements, rather than single-parent custody. Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat, said it would have amounted to a sea change in Maryland family law.