Lawmakers push ahead with vote on same-sex benefits

$1.2 million election would ask voters to decide on constitutional amendment

Posted: Thursday, February 08, 2007

JUNEAU - Some Alaska lawmakers on Wednesday decided to push forward with a $1.2 million election that would ask voters if they would support a constitutional amendment next year to overturn court-ordered benefits for the partners of gay public employees.

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The decision by House Republicans to back the April advisory vote - bearing a price tag nearly four times the annual cost of benefits for less than a hundred gay couples - came even though chances appear slim the constitutional amendment will get on the ballot in November 2008.

Majority Republicans had toyed with moving the April 3 vote back six months to separate it from higher profile issues before them, such as the natural gas pipeline, but the state Division of Elections has printed 374,500 ballots and so far, spent $175,000 on this election.

Meanwhile, House Democrats call the April advisory vote a waste of time and money.

"If our purpose is to find out what Alaskans think about same-sex benefits, we should pay 12,000 bucks and get a scientific statewide opinion poll, not pay $1.2 million for an unscientific opinion poll," Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, said.

The Republican-led Legislature approved the advisory vote last November.

Backers are hoping public support from the April 3 election would sway less than enthusiastic lawmakers to place the constitutional amendment on the 2008 general election ballot.

But for that to happen, the measure, which is expected to be introduced this week, would need approval from a two-thirds majority in both the 40-seat House and 20-seat Senate.

Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, considered asking to delay the election date to October, though he backed down after hearing from Senate members that the measure is not likely to pass there.

Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, said the bipartisan majority of nine Democrats and five Republicans will discuss whether the vote should even be held. She said they might also consider rescinding the April 3 advisory election.

Coghill said he's worried the spring vote will not draw much attention, or voters, while issues like building a natural gas pipeline and ethics reform fill the news.

"The other issue is many of us legislators who feel very passionate about this issue will be kind of hunkered down here in Juneau not being able to talk to our constituents freely," Coghill said.

Meanwhile, a dozen House Democrats introduced a bill on Wednesday that would postpone the election until the Legislature has approved the full $1.2 million cost, requested by Republican Gov. Sarah Palin.

GOP leaders in the House said they don't support the bill and accuse Democrats of trying to subvert the election.

The Alaska Supreme Court told the state in December to stop dragging its feet and implement the benefits for same-sex partners, first ordered in October 2005.

The benefit enrollment period for the employees began Jan. 1. So far, 55 same-sex dependents are now under state health plans and another 22 are pending, according to the state Department of Administration. The cost of the 77 new enrollees is estimated to be $313,562 a year.

The high court ruled in October 2005 that denying benefits to same-sex domestic partners violated the state's guarantee of equal protection for all Alaskans.

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