Domestic partner bill passes House, Senate committees

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A bill to allow municipal employers in Minnesota to define who can be a dependent under employment benefit rules passed key committees in the House and Senate last week and is headed to the floor of both chambers. Republicans and social conservative groups are attempting to block the bill, however, because it would give cities the ability to offer benefits to gay and lesbian couples.

The bill, proposed by Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, would potentially benefit same-sex couples in which one partner works for a municipality. The bill is backed by OutFront Minnesota, the state’s largest public policy and advocacy organization for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Currently, municipalities in Minnesota are prevented from determining which couples can receive health benefits, thanks to a lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis by Republican activist Jim Lilly. The Minnesota Supreme Court found that Minnesota law prevents municipalities from offering benefits to anyone other than the spouse or dependent child of a municipal employee. The Davnie bill would change the applicable state statute to allow local governments to decide how best to allocate employee benefits.

Dave Engstrom of the Minnesota Association of Small Cities, representing about 350 small cities with a population of less than 5,000, said the bill could increase talent in Minnesota’s smaller communities.

“With the turnover in public service jobs, and we have a lot of aging employees in greater Minnesota, small cities need to attract new people, talented people,” he told the House Local Government and Metropolitan Affairs Committee. “This bill gives them the opportunity to offer some enhanced employee benefits and to compete with the private sector.”

Jennifer O’Rourke of the League of Minnesota Cities agreed. “As local governments, we have recruitment and retainment issues. This bill gives us more flexibility to offer to our employees with different family situations.”

Those different family situations raised the ire of the sole voice of dissent at the House committee hearing. Tom Prichard of the Minnesota Family Council said, “Family is critical. It’s absolutely critical. We see the breakdown of the family. And our concern is that the state will begin to redefine family. It’s not in the best interest of children.”

Rep. Michael Beard, R-Shakopee, echoed Prichard’s sentiment: “This is about societal change being engineered right here in this room.”

Committee chair Debra Hilstrom, DFL-Brooklyn Center, countered that “There are all sorts of families, all shapes and sizes. If we don’t allow these changes, we are leaving behind a number of families that are trying to do the right thing.”

The bill passed the House committee along partisan lines in a roll call vote with DFLers voting for it, and Republicans against. The bill will now move to the House floor.

In the Senate, the bill moved out of committee without dissent and was passed by a voice vote.

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