Showdown on Partner Benefits

Kentucky governor calls special legislative session in part to block universities from insuring gay employees' partners.
July 5, 2007

Governors theoretically call special legislative sessions to deal with crises or windfalls that are so time-sensitive and pressing that they can't wait for the next regular session. The idea is that with a limited agenda, legislators can focus on whatever vital issue -- a budget shortfall is most common -- requires the special session.

In Kentucky today, the General Assembly will convene in a special session called by Gov. Ernie Fletcher. One item on the agenda is typical of those that tend to produce special sessions -- an energy company is considering locating in Kentucky, if certain incentives are provided. But it's the other items Governor Fletcher added to the agenda that have some in higher education very worried and others very excited.

Governor Fletcher wants to change state law to require all state agencies to offer health benefits to employees in ways that "adhere" to the Kentucky Constitution's definition of marriage. Legislators who, like the governor, have strong support from social conservatives want to ban the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville from offering any assistance to the unmarried partners of university employees. Both institutions moved in the past year to offer such benefits, which faculty leaders say are necessary to recruit top talent, but the benefits have infuriated powerful groups and politicians who identify themselves as pro-family but whose critics see them as anti-gay.

While faculty members whose benefits are at risk and gay rights groups are trying to rally support, the universities have been left in an awkward position. The benefits are not controversial on their campuses and are the norm for the universities that Kentucky and Louisville aspire to compete with, but academic leaders don't want to offend state politicians. As if to remind the universities of how much they have at stake in the statehouse, Fletcher has also proposed legislation in the special session to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to finance construction projects at the state's colleges and universities.

Because the governor vetoed most of those projects during the regular session, many are suspicious of his motives. The benefits issue is seen as a way for Fletcher to bolster his re-election bid by appealing to his socially conservative base and the bonds are seen as a way for him to keep universities from questioning why the state should get involved in benefits that are going to maybe 100 individuals at negligible cost.

"This is about trying to silence the universities," said Christina Gilgor, executive director of the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, a gay rights group.

David Edmunds, policy analyst for the Family Foundation of Kentucky, praised the governor for calling a special session and said that the benefits issue was significant to the entire state. The universities are making "a major shift in public policy, by trying to give official recognition to live-in lovers," he said, and legislators need to block that from taking place.

The outcome in Kentucky is uncertain. In its last session, the Senate passed legislation that would have cut off the benefits, but the measure was held up in a House committee. Democratic legislators are accusing the governor of playing politics, but bills that are framed as defending "family values" tend to do well.

The dispute in Kentucky illustrates how providing benefits for gay faculty and staff members' partners isn't the same in socially conservative states as in other parts of the country. Several hundred colleges nationwide provide them, and well over 90 percent of institutions on various lists of top universities do so.

But plenty of universities haven't even gone as far as the two Kentucky universities have done. The University of Virginia, which does not offer domestic partner benefits, had to get an opinion from the state's attorney general in June to let gay employees and students share university gym memberships (which those who are married may share with spouses) with their partners. Even this move was carefully described to avoid categorizing gay people as parts of couples. The new Plus One benefit is open to one adult who lives in the same home as a student or employee.

In many ways, the Kentucky universities also moved with caution in creating the benefits, doing so only after years of pressure from faculty members, and tried to show political savvy in talking about them. Louisville moved first, and was able to point to its ability -- with the benefits -- to recruit top scientists who brought with them significant government grants.

When the University of Kentucky followed in April, it cited similar reasons, but it didn't act on domestic partners alone, announcing a series of benefits improvements, including new child care facilities and expanded educational benefits. The entire package was based on meetings with employees and recruiters about ways the university could be more competitive.

Matters became complicated last month when Greg Stumbo, attorney general of Kentucky, issued an opinion in which he said Kentucky's new benefits violated the state's constitutional ban on gay marriage because the benefits provided official recognition to a non-marital relationship. Stumbo's opinion suggested that the university might avoid that problem by broadening its benefits criteria so they would not be making some relationships resemble marriage.

The University of Kentucky took Stumbo's advice and changed its policy to one for "sponsored dependents" rather than domestic partners. And the university went further, announcing that no state funds would be used for the benefits. Jay Blanton, a spokesman for the University of Kentucky, said that the institution would "continue to engage in a dialogue with legislators about decisions that the university makes" to offer "perspective about the importance of the university having comprehensive and competitive compensation packages."

When the university introduced the benefits, 44 employees signed up for their partners, and when the university expanded the criteria, 55 people signed up (the original 44 had to sign up again and are probably within the 55).

Groups like the Family Foundation of Kentucky and their legislative allies were not satisfied by the university's changes, and don't want family coverage to go to anyone who isn't a child or married to an employee.

Rep. Stan Lee, the Republican whip in the Kentucky House, and sponsor of legislation to bar the universities from offering domestic partner benefits, told The Lexington Herald-Leader that lawmakers needed to block the universities now, before the benefits become ingrained. "Once you start something, it's always harder and more complicated than to stop it in the first place," he said. "There's always a sense of urgency when an agency tries to act outside of its constitutional authority."

Edmunds, of the Family Foundation, said that the universities' arguments about making their benefits packages competitive needed to be challenged. If Kentucky's universities have trouble attracting professors, they should just raise salaries, he said. "Pay everyone more, and if they want to spend it on insurance or a plasma TV, they can do whatever they want," he said.

Asked about the message the state would be sending to gay professors or potential professors with domestic partners, Edmunds said that wasn't an important question. "What message does this send to an 18-year-old who starts school there? It says that any unmarried sexual relationship is to be encouraged," he said.

Joan Callahan sees different messages in play. A philosopher who is director of women's and gender studies at Kentucky, she said that in doing faculty recruiting, she is asked about partner benefits all the time -- most of the time from people who wouldn't personally gain from the benefits but who use the benefits as a measure of the university's commitment to equity.

"This year the question was coming to me from straight married people," Callahan said. If the General Assembly repeals the benefits, "we will lose people."

Callahan came to Kentucky in 1986 and she was for many years the most public advocate for domestic partners benefits. She met her partner shortly after coming to the university and they have been together for 19 years and jointly raised her partner's biological son. Because she is self-employed, her partner and Callahan had to seek private health insurance for her all these years, until this year. "Our family is finally getting some equal treatment. We're finally getting treated like my heterosexual colleagues," she said.

If the General Assembly takes those benefits away, she said, the message will be clear: "If you are gay, this is not a place you are going to be welcome, and if you have any sort of difference, you need to think twice about coming to the University of Kentucky."


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