Rush of same-sex marriage bill testifiers sign-up before midnight deadline

Rush of same-sex marriage bill testifiers sign-up before midnight deadline
Published: Nov. 1, 2013 at 6:44 AM HST|Updated: Nov. 1, 2013 at 6:59 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hundreds of people flooded the Capitol, just before Thursday's midnight deadline to sign up for testimony on a controversial same-sex marriage bill was set to expire.

House Representatives on the Judiciary and Finance committees will return to the Capitol Friday morning to continue hearing public testimony on SB 1, the "Hawaii Marriage Equality Act of 2013" at 8:30 a.m.

More than 5,000 people signed up to speak Thursday before the midnight deadline and lawmakers simply were not able to get through everyone.

The Capitol's online testimony registration system shut down at exactly midnight, but about half an hour before the deadline an estimated 250 people rushed in to the auditorium area for their chance to sign up and be heard.

"This is the manifestation of all we believe and hold dear in our First Amendment rights. This is wonderful! This is great!" Represenative Marcus Oshiro exclaimed, as he surveyed the crowd 

Prior to the sudden wave of arrivals, the Capitol had started to get pretty quiet as lawmakers neared 14 hours of testimony and young children still dressed in their Halloween costumes had fallen asleep outside the auditorium doors as their parents patiently waited for their turn to testify. 

Representative Richard Fale says he initiated an effort to get people to the Capitol because he heard the session may not continue Friday morning as Committee officials had originally announced. 

"When it became apparent that there was going to be an attempt to not honor that -- we, including with a number of community leaders, sent out the messages to our community saying you guys need to come back because these people are about to not keep their word," said Rep. Fale, though he wouldn't indicate which other lawmakers had organized a similar push. 

House leadership says that was never their intention.  Around 10:30 p.m. Thursday, they began taking testimony from families with children -- despite their speaking order, like Abbie Mejia who showed up at 11:45 with her infant daughter and was immediately allowed into the auditorium to address lawmakers. 

"We live in Kailua and we left our house at 11:20 p.m. hoping we could get here in time, because we feel like this is such an important decision and it has eternal consequences," said Mejia as her husband stood by holding their sleepy little girl. 

At midnight, Representatives recessed to consider if they should keep going so families still waiting would not have to return later.  In the end, they decided not to and chose to reconvene Friday instead.

"Anybody who signed up by midnight tonight is eligible to testify and we'll be starting with testifier #1001 because that's as far as we got," announced House Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads. 

A total of 5,181 signed up to testify and Mikela Branco was the very last person to register at the stroke of midnight. 

"This isn't just one night, this is for the future of Hawaii.  It's not just for my kids, but my kids' kids.   It's not just one night, but for the rest of the future for Hawaii," Branco said, describing why she dashed out of the house in hopes of making it to the Capitol before the deadline. 

Lawmakers agreed this is a historic moment. 

"They should come back and talk to us because once the legislature decides this issue we want to make sure everyone who had something to say has said their piece," said Representative Tom Brower, standing amongst a crowd of last-minute arrivals. 

Rep. Rhoads says he was not surprised by the last minute surge and didn't regret his decision to allow people to sign-up until midnight. 

"It's an opportunity for people to make their opinions known and I don't regret it.  I think it's a positive thing that we're willing to spend the time necessary to hear what everyone has to say," Rhoads explained. 

House Finance committee Chair Sylvia Luke agreed, adding she was impressed by how overall courteous the testimony was on Thursday and that lawmakers were prepared to hear more.

"Whether it's number one or 5,000 -- we want the same amount of clout given to the first testifier to the last testifier, so we do appreciate the public keeping within the time limit to allow everybody to testify," Rep. Luke said, 

Once House officials made the decision that testimony would not continue past midnight the Capitol auditorium area quickly emptied out.  The hearing will resume at 8:30 a.m. Friday, although only people who registered by the Thursday deadline will get to testify. 

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