House eliminates domestic partner benefits

GOP attacks health care benefits for partners of state employees

By Tara Cavanaugh

LANSING-

The state House voted to eliminate health insurance benefits for the domestic partners of state employees on Thursday, Sept. 15.

This renders the benefits, which were set to take effect Oct. 1, likely dead before they even began. The bills will also need to pass the state Senate, which already made clear its intent to get rid of the benefits in March.

The bills, HB 4770 and 4771, prohibit any government entity - including universities and city governments - from providing such benefits and prohibit unions from including them in collective bargaining agreements.

The GOP attack on domestic partner benefits began this winter when the Michigan Civil Service Commission voted to allow state employees to share health care benefits with an "other eligible adult." The OEA benefits term is used in place of "domestic partner benefits," which the state Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 2008, after Michigan voters approved an anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution in 2004. The state Supreme Court said defining marriage as only between a man and a woman also means that benefits should only be shared between those who can legally marry in Michigan.

State Republicans already tried to overturn the MCSC benefits twice this year but failed.

Rep. Dave Agema from Grandville is the primary sponsor of the HB 4770 and 4771.

"It is not the responsibility of taxpayers to support the roommates and unmarried partners of public employees," Rep. Agema said in a press release. "Michigan voters, our Supreme Court, and the attorney general all agree with these bills, and passing legislation is just another way to underline their point to those who don't seem to get it. This is a fiscal issue. We are doing all we can to respect the will of the people and not place an unnecessary economic burden on our residents while so many are struggling to make ends meet."

In May Attorney General Bill Schuette announced he is suing the MCSC, challenging the constitutionality of its ability to grant the benefits.

The MCSC is an independent, state constitution-created office of four officials who administer civil and human resource services. None of its decisions have ever been reversed by state lawmakers since its inception in 1908.

Ray Holman, the legislative liaison for the UAW Local 6,000, one of the biggest employee unions in the state, was disappointed by the House decision. State unions negotiated with the MCSC in order to secure the OEA health benefits.

"Those benefits and agreements we worked out at the bargaining table," he said. "You want to have a highly skilled workforce. And we feel to compete we need to attract the best people and provide opportunities for people. In this day and age, we need more people insured, not less."

One problem with the House bills is that they go beyond state authority on city governments and universities by legislating how they offer health benefits, noted Emily Dievendorf, policy director at Equality Michigan.

"We can completely expect legal battles to come from this," she said - legal battles that will be expensive.

Dievendorf also noted that Gov. Rick Snyder called attempts this year to financially penalize state universities for offering domestic partner benefits "unconstitutional and unenforcable" in a May 18 letter from his legal office.

"This session has been exceptional in its hate-inspired legislation," Dievendorf said. "Unfortunately they're still calling those bits of social policy economic policy."

Gov. Snyder's media office did not respond to requests for comment.

Republicans say their opposition to the benefits only concerns cost. Some GOP lawmakers initially projected the benefits to cost the state as much as $20 million, but then they changed their estimate to $8 million. Dievendorf said another estimate projected the benefits would cost the state an extra $6 million, which would have a very small fiscal impact on the state's overall $46 billion dollar budget.

"Every time (Republicans) introduce a piece of legislation just based on hate that's only purpose is to try to make a vulnerable population even more vulnerable, they are spending tax payer dollars to do that," Dievendorf said. "They're wasting time, they're wasting energy, they're wasting dollars."

Dievendorf did not know of any current similar legislation pending in the Senate but said she would not be surprised if bills were introduced soon, due to Republicans' many previous attempts to get rid of the benefits.

"It's the same story - that can get a little frustrating to me after a while," she said. "We have to remain as angry about this as we were in the beginning. If they wear us out, then they win this one. And we can't allow that to happen. Every time it reaches any point in the process towards getting passed into law, we should all be making calls to our legislators. We should all be just as fired up. You stop doing that, and it opens up the door for them."

Timeline: The long fight for domestic partner benefits

2004

Michigan voters approve an amendment to the state constutition prohibiting same-sex marriage or civil unions.

2008

-Gov. Jennifer Granholm negotiates domestic partner benefits with state employee unions. The Michigan Supreme Court rules that these benefits are too similar to benefits shared by married partners. In prohibiting "domestic partner benefits," the Court also notes that public institutions are not prohibited from offering benefits to another unrelated individual.

-Universities change language in their health care policies. Instead of offering "domestic partner benefits," they offer employees the option of sharing benefits with an "other eligible adult."

January 2011

-In a 3-1 vote, the Michigan Civil Service Commission negotiates with state employee unions to offer "other eligible adult" benefits. The OEA cannot be related, cannot be a tenant and must have lived with the state employee for more than one year. The OEA's dependents are also eligibile.

-Republican lawmakers voice their opposition to the benefits. Gov. Rick Snyder says he is "frustrated and disappointed" with the decision because it is an added cost to the state budget.

March 2011

-Republicans try to overturn the MCSC decision. In order to do that, they need a 2/3 majority vote in both the House and Senate.

-The Senate votes along party lines to overturn the MCSC decision.

-Republicans fail to get the 2/3 majority vote needed in the House to overturn the MCSC decision.

May 2011

-Attorney General Bill Schuette sues the MCSC, saying giving benefits to an "other eligible adult" is unconstitutional.

-Republican lawmakers submit a budget proposal to Gov. Rick Snyder that penalizes state unversities 5 percent of their state money if they offer domestic partner benefits. Snyder calls the proposal "unconstitutional and unenforcable." Republicans remove the language.

September 2011

The House approves House bills 4770 and 4771, which prohibit government entities, such as universities and city governments, and state unions from negotiating partner benefits with state employees.

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