Less than a week after being approved in the Maryland House of Delegates by a vote of 86-52, a transgender non-discrimination bill is facing an unexpected roadblock in the State Senate.
In a development that has baffled many supporters of the bill, Senate President Thomas Mike Miller (D-Prince George’s and Calvert Counties) bypassed normal procedures by sending the bill to the Senate Rules Committee, which is known as a “graveyard” for controversial legislation.
“This is not a good sign,” said transgender activist Dana Beyer, who is closely following the bill.
The Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act calls for banning discrimination against transgender Marylanders in areas of employment, housing, and credit.
Its approval in the House of Delegates by such a large margin gave advocates hope that the legislation would clear the Senate before April 11, when the Maryland Legislature adjourns for the year.
Beyer and officials with Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT group leading the lobbying effort for the bill, have said they believe they have the votes to pass the bill if it reaches the Senate floor.
But they have long expressed concern over getting the bill out of committee. The gender identity measure has died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee for the past four years. This year, following its strong showing in the House, supporters and others familiar with the Senate were hopeful that the Judicial Proceedings Committee would approve the measure.
Miller’s decision to send the bill to the Rules Committee rather than directly to Judicial Proceedings is being viewed as an ominous sign that Miller or Judicial Proceedings Committee Chair Sen. Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery County) are seeking to kill the bill this year by preventing it from reaching the Senate floor.
Neither Miller nor a spokesperson for his office returned a call seeking comment as of late Tuesday.
Frosh denied reports by some Annapolis insiders that he asked Miller to divert the bill from his committee because he didn’t want to deal with it.
“I don’t make bill assignments, so it’s not me,” he told the Blade. “The president makes those determinations, and it’s not up to a committee chairman. When he sends me the bill, I’ve got it. But until he does, I don’t.”
Should it reach his committee, Frosh said he isn’t certain whether the bill has enough votes to clear the panel.
“I have four new members on the committee, none of whom has ever heard the issue before,” he said. “I have no idea where they are on the bill.”
In yet another development likely to trouble the bill’s supporters, Frosh said his office was “inundated” on Monday by calls from transgender activists opposed to the bill because it has been stripped of a provision banning discrimination against transgender persons in the area of public accommodations.
The bill’s lead sponsor in the House of Delegates, Del. Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s and Calvert Counties), said she reluctantly removed the public accommodations provision as the only way to ensure approval of the bill this year in the House.
“They are livid that that was taken out and oppose the bill,” Frosh said of Trans Maryland members. “So there’s a division within the transgender community apparently about whether or not it’s a good idea. I have no idea how that will affect the four people who have never heard the bill, let alone the other folks on the committee.”
Most transgender activists, including officials with the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force’s transgender rights project, are supporting the bill with the objective of adding the public accommodations provision next year.
Frosh, who also serves as vice chair of the Rules Committee, said the chair of that panel, Sen. Katherine Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County), along with Senate President Miller, who is a member of the committee, would make the decision on whether to quickly send the bill to Judicial Proceedings.
With less than two weeks before the legislature’s adjournment for the year, the Rules Committee would have to debate and vote on whether to release the bill to the Judicial Proceedings Committee this week in order to allow time for Judicial Proceedings to hold a hearing on the bill before voting to send it to the Senate floor.
Seven members of the 11-member Rules Committee voted against the same-sex marriage bill that the Senate passed in February. Committee Chair Klausmeier and Frosh voted for the marriage measure, but four other Democrats on the committee voted against it, including Miller.
Although the marriage bill may not be a precise predictor of how senators will vote on the transgender bill, some Annapolis observers say at least some of the conservative Democrats in the Senate who oppose marriage equality might also be opposed to a transgender bill.
“This is another hurdle to advancing job and housing protections in Maryland this year,” said Equality Maryland’s executive director, Morgan Meneses-Sheets, in commenting on Miller’s decision to send the transgender bill to the Rules Committee.
“We are already working with allies to keep this important bill moving,” she said. “It is challenging, but this bill literally would save lives and is worth fight for.”
In a statement, Equality Maryland said it will “keep working until the final hours of the session” to secure passage of the Gender Identity Non-Discrimination Act.
Although the bill has died in Frosh’s Judicial Proceedings committee for the past four years, he told the Blade Tuesday he would vote for it if it reaches his committee. He said he’s being unfairly blamed for derailing the bill.
“I’ve gotten calls saying I’m responsible for killing it, I’m responsible for sending it to Rules,” he said. “I’ve gotten calls saying make sure the bill dies and you got to do something to make sure it passes. I wish I had as much power as people ascribe to me.”