Domestic partner benefits advance in House


By Andy Birkey | March 24, 2009 • Legislation that would pave the way for domestic partner benefits for state employees passed a key committee last week. Currently, gay and lesbian state employees are barred from providing state employee benefits for their families, a discrepancy that advocates say puts state government and state colleges and universities at a competitive disadvantage. The bill, HF 1219, passed the House Health Care and Human Services Policy and Oversight Committee by a voice vote.

Andy Birkey lives in Minneapolis. He is an LGBT community advocate and blogs on politcial, social, and community issues. Read his blog at Eleventh Avenue South

“It’s simply a matter of fairness and respect for our members,” said Russ Stanton of the Inter Faculty Organization, representing the employees of Minnesota’s state colleges and universities. “Our members that are in domestic partnerships work just as hard, and we think that they deserve equal respect and equal benefits.”

The bill would allow health, dental and life insurance benefits to a domestic partner which is defined as “a person who has entered into a committed interdependent relationship with another adult.”

Stanton said that Minnesota’s public schools are at a disadvantage in hiring. “It’s a recruitment and retention issue for the state universities as they seek to recruit high-quality faculty,” he said. “State universities compete nationally and internationally, and many higher-education institutions that we compete with do offer domestic partner benefits.”

Dr. Sarah Ford, a faculty member at Inver Hills Community College, told the committee about one award-winning colleague who is looking for work in California because she can’t get health benefits for her family.

“We pay the same dues to our unions. We pay the same co-pays and deductibles. We make the same retirement contributions as everyone else,” said Ford. “We do the same work as our married colleagues, and we pay the same taxes that everybody else pays except we are not offered the same benefits that married people are.”

Ford pointed out that 16 states and the District of Columbia offer domestic partner benefits to state employees.

Monica Meyer, public policy director for OutFront Minnesota, countered a common contention frequently offered by social conservatives about domestic partner benefits: that some people will try to game the system. “People don’t sign up to say they are domestic partners when they are not domestic partners,” she said. “One of the issues is the cost factor: Domestic partner benefits are taxed as federal income, while benefits for married couples are not. That’s why we have written in the definition of domestic partners in the bill.”

Bill sponsor Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, and Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano, had an awkward but humorous exchange over the bill.

“I will start out with an apology to Rep. Emmer,” said Kahn. “The last time I presented this bill, Rep. Emmer suggested an amendment, and I didn’t accept the amendment because I thought it broadened it in an unacceptable way.”

In 2007 Emmer wanted to change “domestic partner” to “significant other,” which, Kahn felt, would have created an over-broad bill and compromised its chances. The current bill includes elements of Emmer’s amendment such that it is not specific to gay and lesbian couples.

“Mr. Chair,” Emmer interrupted. “I mean we need to clear up when someone doesn’t tell the truth here. The bottom line was that Rep. Kahn didn’t trust me.”

“Right,” said Kahn — and the room erupted in laughter. “And I have now apologized for that lack of trust, and I have incorporated Rep. Emmer’s amendment from the start. I did make the mistake in not getting to him in time to co-author the bill.”

That generated more laughter, as Emmer has consistently spoken out against and voted in opposition to bills that would recognize same-sex couples.

The bill now heads to the State Government Finance Division.