Vote may cut off existing benefits

Same-sex laws may affect cities', university policies

Posted: Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Alaska legislators, upset about being told by the courts to provide employment benefits to same-sex partners of state employees, upped the ante by holding next Tuesday's advisory election.

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A "yes" vote would be a step toward denying benefits to same-sex partners of local and other government employees.

Opponents of the change say it would violate the standard of "equal pay for equal work," but proponents such as Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, say it's what the majority of Alaskans want.

"The Supreme Court overruled the Legislature, and overruled the people of Alaska," Coghill said.

The election may have its biggest consequences in Juneau and Anchorage, cities that provided benefits to employees' domestic partners before the state began doing it under order Jan. 1. The University of Alaska also may be affected because it operates independently and chose to provide benefits on its own years ago.

Michael MacLeod-Ball, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, opposes the movement to curtail benefits.

"It would take away benefits from people not only newly entitled to them, but also everybody who already had them," MacLeod-Ball said. "It would be substantially more than were benefited by the change as of Jan. 1."

While the pro-and-con debate has been heated, few have noted that the result would reach beyond the limited scope of same-sex state employees. It also would affect heterosexual couples who aren't married.

State officials said 91 state employees initially filed for the benefits. In Juneau, eight employees participate in the city's domestic partner benefit program, said City Manager Rod Swope.

That program can be used by any of the city's 500 employees, whether or not they are legally married, as long as they meet the city's conditions.

Swope said Juneau began offering the benefits about three years ago.

"We just felt it was a correct decision, and a responsible thing to do," he said.

Three of Anchorage's 3,000 city employees have filed for the benefits, Anchorage officials said earlier this year.

The University of Alaska System has 116 employees receiving Financially Interdependent Partner benefits, said spokeswoman Kate Ripley. That's out of 4,300 employees from Ketchikan to Kotzebue, she said.

Other independently operating government agencies such the Alaska Railroad Corp. and the Fairbanks North Star Borough also have begun to offer the benefits, MacLeod-Ball said.

The University of Alaska wants to continue its benefits, Ripley said.

"We compete on a national level for faculty and many of our executive-level employees and view these benefits as valuable to attract and retain good people," she said.

To avoid paying benefits for same-sex partners, legislators may have to resort to a constitutional amendment, Coghill said. On Tuesday, a committee in the House approved a Coghill-sponsored constitutional amendment, on a 5-2 party-line vote, with Rep. Andrea Doll, D-Juneau, voting against it.

A similar measure failed to reach the ballot last year because the Legislature was unable to muster the supermajority needed to place it there. Few think it will be able to do so this year either.

Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, voted for the amendment last year. But she doesn't expect it to muster the 14 votes necessary to start the constitutional amendment process this year.

"I know last year when the numbers were a little different there were not 14 votes. I doubt there would be 14 votes this year," she said.

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