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legislature meets to discuss DP benefits

legislature meets to discuss DP benefits

Alaska state legislators will return to Juneau on Monday for their third special session in six months. The session was called by Gov. Frank Murkowski to discuss court-ordered benefits for same-sex couples.

The state is under an Alaska supreme court order to have new regulations in place by January 1 to provide employment benefits to same-sex domestic partners of state employees and retirees.

Murkowski called lawmakers back into session after Lt. Gov. Loren Leman refused to sign the regulations developed by the state to provide benefits. Leman said the regulations are not legal unless the legislature passes a law that authorizes them.

Commissioner of administration Scott Nordstrand has said that if the legislature fails to implement the regulations, he will. Majority lawmakers, however, plan to ask the courts to extend the deadline. If a delay is granted, one GOP leader said he would return next year with a constitutional amendment to ask voters to deny the benefits.

"I am going to propose a resolution that we disagree with the courts and respectfully request them to let the next legislature deal with it," said house majority leader John Coghill.

House Republicans initially asked Murkowski last weekend to withdraw his call for a special legislative session, saying the issue should not be decided by a "lame duck governor and legislature."

House minority leader Ethan Berkowitz said the regulations are long overdue and that he would oppose a resolution to extend the deadline. "It's too bad that some of these people don't like same-sex couples, but all Alaskans deserve the protection of the constitution," said Berkowitz. "Constitutional protections should never depend on who's in power and when they arrive in power."

Senate majority leader Gary Stevens said his caucus agrees with the proposed resolution. He said the questions are too complex and potential costs too high to be dealt with in haste. He said the matter should go through a public process.

The benefits were ordered by the state supreme court 13 months ago. The high court said denying them violated the state's guarantee of equal protection for all Alaskans because gay couples can never become eligible for benefits offered to married couples.

Last session, lawmakers considered but failed to pass a constitutional amendment that would have overturned the court's ruling.

Legislative leaders also had feared the session would be used to force a decision on a natural-gas contract. They earlier went to court to stop Murkowski from acting independently to sign a contract, and won a ruling. (AP)

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