By PATRICK CONDON
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The second-to-last week of Minnesota's legislative session started Monday with attention growing around the definition of marriage, as the bill to open it up to same-sex couples headed into what could be a pivotal week at the Capitol.
The House Ways and Means Committee gave its stamp to the bill after a brief hearing that focused only on its minor impact to the state general fund. Earlier, dozens of gay marriage opponents demonstrated outside the House chamber, while another House Democrat whose vote was seen as important to the bill's success or failure said that he would vote for it.
Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, joined a growing list of Democrats from rural areas committed to vote for the bill.
"We're going to pass the bill," said its sponsor, Minneapolis Rep. Karen Clark.
Clark, House Democratic leaders and gay marriage lobbyists all declined to publicly reveal if they've secured 68 votes needed for passage.
The earliest the full House could vote is Thursday. The last day of the legislative session is May 20.
"We are talking with members and when we feel confident and ready to go, we will proceed," said House Majority Leader Erin Murphy. So far, not a single House Republican has publicly supported the bill.
It's also possible the state Senate, where passage appears more certain, could take up the bill first to boost its House prospects. At least one Republican senator intends to vote for the bill, and a handful of others are publicly undecided.
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton has committed to sign the bill. If that happens, Aug. 1 is the date at which gay couples could start getting married.
House Ways and Means took up the bill after state fiscal analysts found that legalizing gay marriage would cause a small increase in state employee health insurance costs and generate a small bit of revenue from an expected spike in marriage licenses. The Senate Finance Committee is similarly reviewing the bill Tuesday morning.
While several undecided House members serve on that committee, the vote to pass it was taken by voice with no public record of how members voted. Rep. Jenifer Loon, the second-ranking House Republican, revealed that she did not vote either way and remains undecided on the bill.
"I have not made up my mind," said Loon, whose Eden Prairie-area district strongly voted against the gay marriage ban last fall. Loon said respondents to a survey she sent to constituents supported legalizing gay marriage by a slim majority.
With the debate edging into the spotlight at the Capitol, gay marriage opponents gathered for a news conference and demonstration. Several small children held bright pink signs that read: "Don't erase moms and dads from public policy."
Opponents argued that legal gay marriage could force business owners and government officials to go against their own religious beliefs in interactions with legally wed or engaged gay couples.
Jason Adkins, director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference, predicted it would fall short in the House.
"Right now we believe the votes are not there to pass a redefinition of marriage," Adkins said.
But gay marriage supporters picked up their latest commitment to vote yes from Faust, a Lutheran pastor. Faust said he respected the religious concerns raised by opponents but that the argument cuts both ways.
"We have churches that want to bless legal gay marriages. The only way to give them that option is to pass this bill," Faust said. His east-central Minnesota district backed last fall's gay marriage ban with a vote of nearly 60 percent, but Faust said he hoped constituents would respect that it was a difficult decision.
In all, 17 House Democrats hail from districts that supported the gay marriage ban. If Democrats were to pass the bill without Republican support, at least 12 of those members would have to vote for it. So far, seven of those members are either definitely voting yes or say they're leaning toward it.
Only one House Democrat, Rep. Mary Sawatzky of Willmar, is a definite "no" vote.
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