reWorking Michigan: Domestic partner benefits in jeopardy


The state, counties, cities, universities and schools would no longer be able to offer domestic partner benefits under Republican-backed bills moving through the state legislature.


Starting this month, domestic partner benefits are an option for live-in companions of state employees, but those benefits are in jeopardy. Under a Republican-backed measure passed by the state House, the state, local governments and universities would no longer be able to offer domestic partner benefits or include them in collective bargaining negotiations.


GOP lawmakers argue that taxpayers should not have to pay for health insurance for unmarried partners of public employees. But gay rights groups, unions and universities say offering domestic partner benefits is important for attracting the best employees.

Nancy English is recuperating from back surgery at her home in Lansing. She's been getting health insurance for many years through Lansing Community College, where her partner is a full-time professor.

"Through the years, you know, there are times when I didn't work," says English. "I was going to school, finishing my degree at LCC, and then I went to Michigan State. So, I was working sometimes part-time, maybe a little bit at times not at all."

English could get health benefits through her job, but prefers not to. If she were to enroll in a different health plan, she could be denied coverage for a pre-existing condition.

"Boy, I really can't risk the danger of being denied any kind of surgeries or services or procedures, " says English.

The challenge to domestic partner benefits goes back to 2004, when Michigan voters passed Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. In 2008, the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex domestic partner benefits for public employees was a violation of that amendment.

Still, some local governments and universities got around the ruling by re-characterizing domestic partner benefits as benefits for "other qualified adults," including same-sex and opposite sex couples, and the state Civil Service Commission decided this year to offer domestic partner benefits to live-in partners of state employees. Republicans tried to overturn that decision but couldn't get the two-thirds majority vote needed in the House. Attorney General Bill Schuette filed suit to block the benefits. Arguments in that case probably won't be heard until next year.

"It's a matter of cost and it's a matter of law," says Republican state Representative Dave Agema.

Agema sponsored the measure that would ban domestic partner benefits for public employees. His proposal was approved by the House and is now in the Senate. Agema says domestic partner benefits provided by universities, local governments and now the state government are a way to circumvent the state ban on gay marriage and civil unions. And he says taxpayers should not have to pay for them.

"For example, in a college, you could have a professor and you could have a student living with each other," says Agema. "And then the state would be forced to pay those benefits."

"This is social, religious engineering that really crossed the line," says Mike Boulus. He's head of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan. Boulus calls the legislation extremely intrusive and an attempt by the Republicans to micromanage universities.

"It's clearly within the law, what we're doing, providing domestic partner benefits," says Boulus. "And benefits covering another adult in the household are mainstream in the public and private sector in Michigan and around the country."

More than half of all Fortune 500 companies provide domestic partner benefits. Boulus says for those companies and for universities and governments in Michigan, it's good policy for recruiting and retaining the best employees.

"And you look at just some of the Fortune 500 companies in Michigan," says Boulus. "Chrysler; Ford; General Motors; Kellogg in Battle Creek; Meijer's in Grand Rapids. They are all providing the same type of benefits. You say, well they're private. They're all receiving some type of tax credit of some sort."

Nancy English also argues the tax issue. She says people who get domestic partner benefits pay taxes, too.

"I think the picture that people don't look at a lot is what we pay," says English. "It's not like we are orphan children who don't give anything to the state of Michigan. We are taxpayers."

While she's happy with the health insurance she gets through LCC, English points out that benefits for domestic partners are not equal to those for married couples. She gets health insurance, but not dental, or eye care, and she can't take classes for free. Those benefits are for married couples only. And there's another inequality. English has to pay income tax on the value of her domestic partner benefits.

reWorking Michigan
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