Jennifer Ackerman, Deseret Morning News
Sen. Scott McCoy listens to Sen. Greg Bell during Senate floor debate on an amendment to the controversial domestic partner registry in Salt Lake on Friday.

It appears the political wrangling is just getting started over a bill that sets guidelines for what benefits cities and counties can provide to unmarried couples.

SB299 is a response to Salt Lake City's new domestic partner registry that gives employers that choose to offer domestic partner benefits an easy way to identify them. The bill allows local registries based on financial dependence or interdependence but prohibits domestic partnerships and civil unions.

An effort to amend SB299 to clarify that hospital visitation can be included in registries — as Salt Lake City does — caused a stir Friday. It took a while, but the amendment finally passed while sponsor Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, was off the floor.

Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, predicts "a lot of very intense discussion" when debate resumes on Monday, both from those who want the Legislature to bar Salt Lake City's registry and those who want to leave the issue alone.

Valentine said senators are taking the weekend to make sure they understand the "full effect of the amendment."

At first, the amendment had failed in an 11-9 vote, after Bell said it wasn't needed.

Then, debate on the bill was delayed. But while Bell was off the floor, the amendment passed unanimously when it was brought up by Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble, R-Provo. That vote was followed by a 20 minute closed-door GOP caucus meeting.

Afterward, Bell said, "We're just going to have to decide on Monday."

Valentine called the amendment vote "a tactical error," saying he didn't see Bell wasn't on the floor and that he thought Bell had agreed to it. The amendment was sought by the Utah Hospital Association.

Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, said he voted for the amendment, but is concerned about its implications. He questioned what would happen if a couple registered in Salt Lake tried to use their certificate to establish visitation rights at a Logan hospital.

In first introducing the amendment, Minority Whip Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake, said it was meant to clarify that hospital visitation could be included.

But Bell said the amendment wasn't needed. His bill allows local governments to offer benefits to employees and create registries based on financial dependence or interdependence.

"If you look at the words, I can't see (SB299) excluded it," Bell told the Deseret Morning News. "I just don't want to get into a laundry list."

Salt Lake City officials say hospital visitation rights are an important part of the city's domestic partnership ordinance, and they're hoping that provision is included in the final legislation.

"The mayor sees an important connection between extending health-care benefits to residents and the emotional support that comes with visiting loved ones at the hospital," said Helen Langan, spokeswoman for Mayor Ralph Becker.

Bell says SB299 is needed in case of future court challenges to the state's constitutional bar on same-sex marriage and other substancially similar domestic unions.

"The kind of registry you can have is ... something that doesn't create a proxy for marriage," Bell said.

The bill is the Senate's second attempt at addressing the issue. Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, originally sponsored a bill that would have revoked the city's registry. That bill was stalled amid Buttars' political woes.

Contributing: Jared Page