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What to Watch for in Today’s NJ Senate Vote

Today, the New Jersey State Senate is scheduled to vote on what could be its most volatile piece of legislation of the session. Obviously, I’m talking about S1036 – the bill to grant children of illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates at New Jersey’s public colleges and universities.

I bet you thought I was going to say same-sex marriage, weren’t you? Sure, that issue has been getting the lion’s share of media attention (and I’ll comment on that issue in more detail below). But in terms of a legislative vote’s potential impact in the 2011 elections, there is little question in my mind which of these issues could be more controversial in the long-term.

UPDATE: The Senate postponed the vote on S1036 to Monday 1/11. Possibly, the potential political fallout may have caught up to some legislators.

While the marriage bill debate has been hot, the fire is likely to fizzle for most voters if the bill were to pass. As I wrote last month, the majority of New Jerseyans do not have a strong opinion on this issue. Of course, that’s not to say that for a very vocal minority, this marriage issue will stay alive regardless of today’s outcome (again, more on that below).

For many more voters, though, an issue that is likely to stick in their crawl is granting any privileges to illegal immigrants. A Monmouth University/Gannett New Jersey Poll (March 24, 2009) from last year bears this out. A majority of 51% considered illegal immigration to be a very serious problem in New Jersey and another 28% found the problem somewhat serious. Only 18% said it was either not too or not at all serious.

When asked whether illegal immigrants domiciled in New Jersey should be allowed to pay in-state tuition rates at public higher education institutions, only 20% said yes. When asked whether the children of those immigrants should be afforded that privilege, the affirmative vote only went up to 32%. Moreover, 22% of the public said that these children should not even be allowed to attend New Jersey’s state colleges, regardless of what they were willing to pay.

The level of public antipathy appears to be more intense for illegal immigration than it is for same-sex marriage. History suggests that attitudes towards immigrants ebb and flow with economic conditions, with public opinion growing more negative during austere times.

My own ancestors came to this country from Ireland and Italy around the turn of the prior century. I vividly remember my grandparents (the children of immigrants themselves) recounting how they were called WOPs (“without papers,” i.e. undocumented), particularly during the Great Depression. Today’s attitudes are really nothing new.

New Jersey tends to be more tolerant of cultural diversity and all that entails. [You can find other Monmouth/Gannett polls on Garden State immigration attitudes.] This is probably more out of necessity than anything else, since we have the third-highest proportion of foreign born residents among all 50 states. One out of every five New Jerseyans was born in another country!

However, if the current economic conditions persist into the 2011 election cycle, we may see a vote on S1036 re-appear as a campaign issue in contested races (assuming the new legislative map that year gives us some competitive districts).

Same-Sex Marriage
Now, a few thoughts on the “less contentious” vote. Among the 39 sitting Senators, 21 were in the state legislature in 2006 and cast “Yea” votes for civil unions. If they repeated that vote on same-sex marriage, the debate would clearly be over. However, at least eight of them have publicly stated (or voted in committee) that they will not support same-sex marriage. And a handful have made no firm commitment either way.

I searched media reports from that time and could find only two comments from any of those 21 legislators. In October 2006, Tom Kean issued the following statement: “I still believe that marriage is and should be between one man and one woman and I would support an amendment to the state constitution reaffirming that definition.” Of course, he was in the throes of a U.S. Senate campaign then. He ended up voting for civil unions one month after losing that election.

On the flip side of the coin, then-Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck gave what appears to be fairly unequivocal support to same-sex unions during floor debate on December 14, 2006: “I think today is much more a matter of equal rights more than anything else. Committed, loving relationships deserve equal consideration by our laws. So today I rise in support of the foundation of our democracy, which indeed is equal consideration by all of our laws.” This was shortly before she launched her successful campaign to unseat Senator Ellen Karcher in 2007. Her rhetoric appears to have tempered somewhat since that time.

Keep an eye on all 21, though. I’ll be most interested in the rationale given by those who cast different votes on civil unions and same-sex marriage.

UPDATE: The bill failed by a vote of 14-20. Among the 21 senators who voted for civil unions in 2006, just 10 voted yes on gay marriage. Among the remainder, 8 voted no (Bateman, Beck, Girgenti, Tom Kean, Madden, Sacco, Turner, Van Drew), 2 abstained (Sarlo, Sweeney) and 1 was not present (Ciesla). Of these legislators, only Senator Girgenti made a public statement explaining his no vote.

I can understand why a person would be opposed to civil unions (and thus gay marriage). They believe that civil society has a vested interest in maintaining and recognizing the union of one man and one woman and that the union of two people of the same sex is deleterious to society.

On the other hand, I’m genuinely puzzled by the argument that gay and lesbian couples deserve all the same rights as male and female married couples, but they just can’t use that term to describe the state’s recognition of those rights. Based on testimony at last month’s committee hearing and other public comments, the root of that distinction is based on religion. In other words, the state has a vested interest in protecting a particular religious definition of the word “marriage,” although it does not have the same interest in maintaining the preservation of that religion’s view of the institution itself.

By the way, there is a very good reason for casting a yes vote for civil unions then and a no vote for gay marriage now. It’s just that I’ve yet to hear anyone use it. In October 2006, the New Jersey Supreme Court basically punted the issue to the legislature. The court ruled that same-sex couples deserved access to marital rights, but it directed the legislature to determine how to do it.

Even if you were opposed to civil unions, one reason to have voted for it would have been to avoid making matters worse by defeating the bill and throwing the matter back to the court, who would have likely declared that same-sex couples should have access to existing marriage laws. As I said, I haven’t heard anyone use this argument to defend a difference for their vote then and now, but it’s the only one I can think of based purely on rationale.

Regardless of the outcome of this legislation, I hope, for the sake of the state, that this is an end to legislative action on it for a while. If it fails, there is no chance that the incoming governor would sign it anyway. If it passes and is signed into law, I hope that opponents won’t tie up the legislature with constitutional amendments to define marriage. Our near-bankrupt state has bigger fish to fry right now.