Last fall, Salt
Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson signed an executive order
extending health care benefits to the same-sex and unmarried
heterosexual partners of city employees. Anderson said
his action was a step toward equality for city employees.
But a bill endorsed Wednesday by a Utah house
committee would make Anderson's order illegal. House
Bill 327 would also prohibit any city, county, or
state government entity from using tax dollars to subsidize
health care benefits for anyone but a narrowly defined list
of dependents, including a current spouse and children
who are either natural, adopted, or for whom the
employee is a legal guardian.
The sponsor, Rep. LaVar Christensen, a
Republican from Draper, said the bill presents an
opportunity for the state to set public policy rather
than let the courts establish random policies through
lawsuits spawned by the policies of individual cities,
counties, or other public agencies. "If we don't act
in this, are we then just abdicating our
responsibility?" Christensen asked members of the house
retirement and independent entities committee. The
committee voted 4-1 to support Christensen's
measure. It now goes to the full house for consideration.
Anderson's September order, which he intended to
be effective immediately, is being challenged in court
and is awaiting a ruling from a third district judge.
At issue is whether Anderson ran afoul of Amendment 3,
a 2004 ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage or any
legal equivalent recognition of marriage for same-sex couples.
Christensen said the amendment isn't an issue in
his bill. In fact, HB 327 does allow for expanded
benefits, but only if the employee is willing to cover
the entire cost of the insurance. "If it's not subsidized by
public tax dollars, we're trying to make additional options
available to public employees," he said after the meeting.
What's unclear is whether HB 327 might affect a
pending action by the Salt Lake City council to move
beyond the mayor's proposal to offer extended and
subsidized benefits to employees who can prove an
economically dependent relationship with someone. A vote on
the policy is expected next week, city council
chairman Dave Buhler said.
The bill "would have an impact on it,
potentially, if it passes as it is now," Buhler said.
"But my recommendation to the council is that we go forward."
Buhler says the council's goal is not to levy a
moral judgment. "It's not based on a personal
relationship, it's based on an economic relationship.
It could be a partner, it could be roommates, it could be a
sibling, it could be a parent," he said.
The benefit is expected to cost the city between
$140,000 and $225,000 a year, depending on how many
employees sign up. That conflicts with Christensen's
bill, which would make it illegal for the city to subsidize
insurance costs, Buhler said. "Where we're coming from is,
let's treat all of our employees fairly and not make
judgments about them," he said. Buhler said he's
spoken to Christensen about his proposal and said he
expects a continuing discussion. "But, of course, from a
city perspective, we'd rather [the legislature] not
dictate what we do with our employees," Buhler said.
"We'll see where things go." (AP)
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