Minnesota legislators took steps Monday toward revoking insurance coverage for the domestic partners of gay and lesbian state workers, which some say would be a first-of-its-kind reversal of benefits by a public employer. House and senate committees approved bills to nullify the same-sex domestic-partner benefits extended in union contracts negotiated in 2001. Union leaders are supporting the concession, grudgingly, to prevent pay cuts for 44,500 employees that would occur if the legislature doesn't ratify the contracts. "We're simply bowing to the political realities," said Russell Stanton, a lobbyist for a union representing state college professors.
Ten states and more than 150 local governments offer such benefits, according to the Washington, D.C.-based gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. Minnesota's move would be "groundbreaking, in a reprehensible way," said HRC's David Smith. "I'm not aware of any government entity taking away domestic-partner benefits from the workforce."
Over the objections of Republican legislators two years ago, then-governor Jesse Ventura included domestic-partner health coverage and bereavement leave in most state union contracts for 2001 and 2002. The pacts have been in force pending the required legislative consent, which hasn't occurred. If they are rejected or no action is taken before May 19, wages and benefits for all workers would revert to previous levels. Negotiations on new two-year contracts are about to begin. The bills would end the domestic-partner insurance coverage effective June 30 and preserve everything else until new deals are reached. Normally, contracts are voted on in full.
"I understand the passion. I understand the emotion to that issue," said house speaker Steve Sviggum, who opposes the domestic-partner benefits on moral grounds. "We will not accept that part of the contract. But we need to ratify the rest of it." To underscore the urgency of the situation, Sviggum and Democratic senate leader John Hottinger agreed to put their own heft behind the bill as the chief sponsors. Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, wants the benefits removed. One difference must be worked out. Hottinger's bill retains sick and bereavement leave, while Sviggum's revokes that too.
State administration department employee Mark Iezek is among 85 state workers with access to the domestic-partner benefits. Iezek said that while he understands why the union is giving in, he is angry that he will lose coverage for his partner of 13 years. "By taking it away, the state will be saying it values some employees more than others," Iezek said.