State could strip benefits from partners - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

State could strip benefits from partners

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Posted: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 8:53 pm | Updated: 2:51 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

State lawmakers are moving to strip domestic partners of state and university employees of the health insurance coverage they gained just a year ago.

A provision in the state budget would legally define "dependents" of state employees who are entitled to coverage to a spouse or a child younger than 19 - or younger than 23 if a full-time student. Changing the law would override regulations adopted last year that also includes domestic partners and their children.

The state Department of Administration says about 750 workers who have signed up for the benefits would be affected.

Senate Majority Whip Pamela Gorman, R-Anthem, said the question of who gets what benefits should be decided by state lawmakers. Gorman said it was wrong of then-Gov. Janet Napolitano to make the change administratively.

And Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, said legislative oversight is particularly important this year, with the state running a deficit, given there is a cost involved. Department of Administration spokesman Alan Ecker put the price tag for providing coverage for the partners of the state workers at about $3 million a year on top of the $625 million Arizona spends on health insurance.

It remains to be seen whether Gov. Jan Brewer, who already has registered objections to some parts of the budget, will support the change.

Gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman said Brewer and her staff are "evaluating" everything in the budget. He said that includes various changes in state policies.

But Brewer herself, in a questionnaire she filled out in 2006 for the Center for Arizona Policy, said she opposes the government granting unmarried domestic partners the same employee and health benefits as married couples. CAP, which helped push through a successful initiative last year to constitutionally ban gays from marrying in Arizona, fought unsuccessfully to block what Napolitano pushed through.

The change in rules was engineered at Napolitano's direction by the Department of Administration.

Agency director Bill Bell acknowledged at the time there would be a cost. But he said that was outweighed by what the state and universities will save in attracting and retaining qualified employees.

University of Arizona President Robert Shelton presented similar arguments in favor of the change.

In a letter to Bell's agency, he said most Fortune 500 companies offer such benefits, as do 60 of what U.S. News and World Report says are the top 125 institutions of higher learning. The same is true, he said, of eight of the Pac 10 universities - UA and Arizona State University being the exceptions - as well as all Ivy League schools and all but one of the Big Ten schools.

"These are our prime competitors for faculty," Shelton wrote. He said providing domestic partner benefits "will greatly enhance our ability to be competitive against these national peers in recruiting and retaining top faculty and staff."

UA spokesman Johnny Cruz said late Wednesday the school continues to believe that is true.

Gorman, however, said she's not convinced.

"I think there's a lot of variables and a lot of talented people in Arizona," she said. "I'm not sure that this is a key. I haven't heard from any of those people saying they only work for Arizona for that reason."

Barbara McCullough-Jones who represents Equality Arizona, a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues-advocacy group, said the issue goes beyond employee recruitment and retention.

"This particular benefit is critical because it is doing exactly what society asks us to do, and that's to take care and be responsible for our families," she said. And McCullough-Jones said the state could end up paying anyway: If the domestic partners and their children lose health coverage, they might end up qualifying for free care from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.

She said her organization is "studying options" of what to do if the change becomes law, including possibly asking voters to override the legislation.

While Bell supported the original change, he said Wednesday his agency has no official position on the move to repeal it. Bell, who serves at the pleasure of whoever is governor, said the agency must follow whatever she wants.

The rule lawmakers are seeking to scrap does not allow any state or university worker to declare any person to be a domestic partner and eligible for coverage.

It specifically limits benefits to someone living with the employee for at least a year and expected to continue living with that person. There is no reference to the gender of the partner.

It also requires an indication of financial interdependence as shown by factors such as a joint bank account, both being parties to a lease or naming the other person as a beneficiary on a will. And there also must be an affidavit by the employee that there is a domestic partnership.

Several communities, including Tucson, Scottsdale, Tempe, Phoenix and Pima County, already extend some benefits to domestic partners of state workers, as do a number of major private employers.

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