House debate results in cutback of benefits for same-sex partners

by Jessica Thompson

As the state Legislature battled over whether to grant benefits to the partners of gay state workers last month, some University workers had no idea their own partners were also at risk.

But because of a debate in the House that some say was fueled by homophobia, dozens of University employees found out last week that their partners are no longer covered by life, dental and accidental death and dismemberment insurance.

The University is in the process of moving from the State Employees Group Insurance Program to a self-insured system, and began offering some same-sex partner benefits as of Jan. 1. Only medical benefits are currently covered under the new University plan, while dental and life benefits remain under state control.

Because the Legislature failed to ratify the state workers’ contracts before adjourning on May 20, most University same-sex partner benefits were cut off June 1.

All benefits will transfer to the new University plan by January 2003, at which point same-sex partners will receive complete coverage, said Dann Chapman, interim director of Health Programs.

The University sent out three letters detailing options for the 76 registered partners of gay University employees. The first was dated May 30, which left little time for workers to plan for the immediate future.

“Something should have gone out saying we won’t know until the Legislature decides, but if there’s a problem (you might lose benefits),” said Phyllis Walker, president of the University clerical workers union.

Walker said she was not notified about the elimination of benefits.

“This is the year of confusion around health benefits for a lot of people, and I don’t think that the University has always done a fabulous job at communicating,” said Gladys McKenzie, the business representative for the University chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

“There has been a reluctance to share the detailed facts and figures broadly. I think it’s ridiculous that we’re having to go through it. It’s outrageous,” she said.

But Marjorie Cowmeadow, associate dean of General College and member of OutFront Minnesota – a gay rights advocacy group – said the University has done a good job keeping employees in the loop.

“If someone doesn’t know what’s going on, they’re not reading their e-mail,” she said.

Chapman said the University had no way of knowing how the legislative inaction would affect its employees. He said the University spent four days after the close of the legislative session compiling information from the Department of Employee Relations to pass on to employees.

“We were simply scrambling in a very short amount of time to get the information together and I think we responded as quickly as we could,” Chapman said. “This is simply something that hit the newspapers – that’s really how I became informed of it that the contract wasn’t ratified.”

The failure to ratify the contracts has been largely attributed to debate in the republican-controlled House over the inclusion of same-sex partnership benefits.

The republican leadership argued that there is no way to define a committed relationship and said the benefits would open the state up to fraud. Also under debate was whether the benefits were unfair to heterosexual unmarried couples who would not receive similar coverage.

“There were a lot of questions that were left open,” said Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Eden Prairie. “There’s a fundamental belief that taxpayers should not be funding these benefits.”

But Assistant Majority Leader Sen. John Hottinger, DFL-Mankato, said same-sex partner benefits are a standard practice among private sector employers. He said the republican arguments are a “smokescreen for those with moral opposition.

“The benefit is designed to help the employer attract the best people to do the work.”

“A committed relationship, whether same-sex or heterosexual, is something that should be
respected,” he said.

Rep. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, agreed.

“It absolutely comes down to homophobia Ö it’s no longer OK to be openly discriminatory toward GLBT people, so they try to dress it up with the veneer of rational policy arguments. But their entire construct is illogical,” said Dibble, who is gay.

Paulsen said the House was motivated by politics, not homophobia. When the House voted against the same-sex benefits last year, Gov. Jesse Ventura included them in the contracts anyway, he said.

“The two heads met this session. A lot of the (failure to ratify) was because of a battle between the governor and the Legislature,” he said.

Paul Moore, spokesman for Ventura, said the governor was not surprised by the outcome.

“Unfortunately, it’s kind of what he’s come to expect. It seems like things will be in place and then because of political wrangling, nothing will get done Ö They had a settlement, they had deals made, so why couldn’t the Legislature just do its job?” Moore said.

Chapman said the University shifted plans largely to avoid worker uncertainty and messy contract debates in the Legislature.

“It’s a travesty. For political gain, a few people have been very willing to disrupt the lives of thousands of others,” McKenzie said.

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]