House threatens U same-sex benefits

Jessica Thompson

When gay state employee Louise Hotka went on strike with 23,000 of her fellow union employees this fall, her sexual orientation wasn’t an issue.

The workers’ contracts already included health and dental benefits for partners of same-sex workers, and Hotka said she thought the hard-fought battle was over.

But despite contract negotiations and a two-week strike, leaders in the Republican House are now threatening to veto the settlement if same-sex benefits are included.

“We want to preserve and elevate marriage as the preferable arrangement,” said House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, R-Eagan. “We’re not going to, as a matter of social and legal policy, say every domestic relationship is the same.”

Leaders for the state’s two largest unions ñ the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees ñ agreed to their tentative contract agreements Oct. 14. Members will vote Friday and results will be counted Monday.

But if the Republican-controlled House votes against contract ratification next session, the workers could go back on strike.

“It’s very irresponsible for the Republicans to talk about not ratifying the contracts and possibly throwing us into another strike,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the East Bank area. “This is not really a very radical thing to do.”

Research by the Human Rights Campaign – a gay, bisexual and transgender rights group – found 70 Minnesota employers that already offer domestic partner benefits.

“The state is kind of behind the times on this,” said C. Scott Cooper, co-director of the Minnesota Alliance for Progressive Action. “It’s becoming an increasingly popular way to compensate your employees fairly.”

Hotka agrees. She has worked for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for 15 years and has had a partner for just as long. She said she has fought for same-sex benefits for the past eight years and called the addition a victory.

The 50-year-old said her partner already has coverage through her job, but she said the benefits are a simple matter of equity.

“This formalizes things so that employees can kind of sit back and breathe easier and know Ö (employers) will be required to allow you to support your family,” she said.


Points of contention

Opponents of same-sex benefits argue it is unfair to unmarried heterosexual couples who would not receive equivalent benefits under the contracts.

For example, if a heterosexual employee’s boyfriend needed coverage, he would not be eligible under the contract.

Also under debate is how a committed relationship would be defined under state law.

“It’s almost impossible to enforce Ö what is a committed relationship? How are you going to make that definition? If we’re going to open it up to anybody, we’ll go bankrupt,” said Rep. Tony Kielkucki, R-Lester Prairie.

The Minnesota Department of Labor estimates the added benefits would cost the state $1.2 million.

Rep. Matt Entenza, DFL-St. Paul, said he thinks the issue of cost is being used by Republicans to cover up a conservative social agenda.

Entenza said because same-sex partners are denied the right to marry, their relationships cannot be compared to those of unmarried heterosexual couples.

“I don’t think it’s the business of government to decide how committed people are,” Entenza said. “People go to Vegas and get married after they’ve known each other two days and that seems to be OK with conservatives.”

Proponents of the benefits have support from Gov. Jesse Ventura, who was a main player in the battle to include the provisions. John Wodele, Ventura’s spokesman, said Ventura saw the lack of benefits as fundamentally unfair.


A divided House

In May the House voted, 78-54, to prohibit benefits for same-sex partners from the contracts, but the amendment did not pass the DFL-controlled Senate.

Pawlenty said the House vote was bipartisan, with 15 Democrats voting to prohibit the benefits.

AFSCME president Peter Benner said when the Legislature dropped the ban on benefits, it should have expected that they would be added during union negotiations.

“(The Legislature) agreed that for this round of bargaining this was an issue that was negotiable,” Benner said. “It is really changing the rules now to come back and say they’re going to undo (the contract).

“It is an incredibly serious matter for the Legislature to overturn a negotiated settlement,” he said.

But some of the Republican leadership said Ventura ignored the House’s vocal opposition to the benefits.

“The House clearly indicated its will to Gov. Ventura,” said Dan Wolter, spokesman for House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon.

Hotka said if the Legislature does not ratify the contracts, they risk reopening debate over the provisions the unions had reluctantly compromised on, such as wages and health care.

“I don’t think it’s a settlement that makes anybody very happy ñ certainly not the unions Ö but if it’s rejected, everything would be on the table again,” said Hotka.

Ventura is not biting his nails yet about a potential new strike.

“I suspect (the Legislature) will make a lot of noise. It’s an election year and a highly emotional issue,” Wodele said. “But I can’t imagine that in the end, the Legislature would want to cause another strike.”

Jessica Thompson welcomes comments at [email protected]