Benefits ballot question galvanizes Alaska voters

Groups on both sides argue about meaning of state advisory vote

Posted: Monday, April 02, 2007

ANCHORAGE - A million-dollar ballot question that has no legal authority has opponents clashing over whether it's simply a measure intended to provide benefits to the gay partners of public employees or a veiled effort to legitimize homosexual unions.

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The only statewide question on Tuesday's ballot asks whether state lawmakers should schedule another public vote in the November 2008 election to ask voters if the state Constitution should be changed to bar the domestic partners of gay public employees from receiving the benefits.

The question is merely advisory and does not guarantee lawmakers will even vote to put a constitutional amendment on next year's ballot.

One side says the issue is about providing an earned health care benefit to state employees. The other says it is an effort to legitimize homosexuality that undermines marriage as defined by voters in 1998 in the state Constitution as between a man and a woman.

No matter what the position, the advisory vote is inappropriate because it won't accomplish anything, said Katherine Gouyton, president of the League of Women Voters of Alaska.

Lawmakers in Juneau should have voted on the issue instead of holding a special election, Gouyton said.

"Advisory votes don't accomplish anything," she said. "What they have done is sidestepped the issue and they are basically asking other people to do their job."

The Rev. Fran Dearman at the Anchorage Unitarian Universalist Fellowship recently preached on the issue. Dearman said she doesn't tell anybody how to vote, but urges them to vote.

She said there are several families in her congregation that would be denied benefits if the state constitution was amended, including two women who first raised their own children and then adopted children.

"My position is that when you deprive people of benefits you haven't depressed an idea. You have attacked real living human beings. You have rendered vulnerable adults and children and homes of real households that need the same support as any other household," she said. "How does it feel to be part of a couple that has been committed for years, that has raised children and to be told you are children of a lesser god, that you are not worthy of basic respect?"

Jim Minnery, head of the Alaska Family Council advocacy group, said the health care benefits argument is a guise.

"Let's just have an honest debate about this," Minnery, a 42-year-old married father of three, said. "Let's talk about what you are really trying to get ... public affirmation of homosexuality.''

Minnery said that Alaska Family Action Inc., the group's political arm, was formed in February to get people to vote "yes" on April 3. A yes vote would tell lawmakers to vote in favor of an amendment to the state constitution barring same-sex benefits.

It would need approval from a two-thirds majority in both the 40-seat House and 20-seat Senate.

On its Web page, Alaska Family Council has a downloadable Bible insert that proclaims "Protect Marriage!"

"This vote is not about health benefits. It's about public affirmation of homosexuality," the insert says. "Marriage is a unique and valuable relationship that benefits society and should receive special status, benefits and public privilege."

The special election was spearheaded by Rep. John Coghill, R-North Pole, after fellow Republican Gov. Sarah Palin ended a bill that sought to block the state from granting public employee benefits to same-sex couples. She vetoed the bill after being advised it was unconstitutional, even though she has said she disagreed with the court's order.

Palin made comments as a candidate indicating she favored restricting benefits to married heterosexuals. However, she is not taking a position as governor because she feels it is inappropriate to advise Alaskans how to vote on the issue, said spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton.

The court fight over the benefits has gone on for years. It ended when the state Supreme Court in October 2005 ordered the state to provide benefits to partners of gay employees. The court found that denying the benefits to same-sex domestic partners violated the state's guarantee of equal protection.

Further political and legal wranglings delayed the benefits until the state's high court told the state it was tired of the delays and ordered it to provide the benefits.

The benefit enrollment period for the employees began Jan. 1, and 67 state employees signed up their partners for benefits before the open enrollment period closed, according to the state Department of Administration. Based on the average claim costs in 2006, the 67 new enrollees could cost the state about $350,000 a year.

According to the Alaska Family Council, a pro-family group with between 4,000 and 5,000 members, the issue was settled in 1998 when the constitutional amendment defining who can marry was approved by a wide margin.

"The people said marriage is between one man and one woman and should be given special privilege," Minnery said. "The court is basically saying this is how we can get around the constitution, and we are saying 'no' 'no' 'no.' We are bringing this back to the people."

Debbie Joslin with Vote Yes for Marriage, a Delta Junction group formed in February to fight court-ordered same sex benefits, said the $1 million for the election is money well spent.

The issue is about much more than health care benefits, she said.

"It is an important issue because as a country and a state we have been in a moral landslide. It is a free country. People can form whatever relationships they want. ... As a society we are not obligated to call this marriage," said Joslin, president of Eagle Forum Alaska, a pro-family group of over 1,000 members. "They have the same right to choose to get married as you and I do, but if you are a man you need to pick a woman."

Joslin said the group has sent out about 130,000 postcards to Alaska voters asking them to vote "yes'' on Tuesday.

The issue is not about gay marriage. It's about health care benefits, said Jesse Cross-Call, campaign manager for the group Alaskans Together, which has several hundred members and was formed in January to defeat the advisory vote.

"What people are going to be voting on April 3 is benefits. The word 'marriage' is not in there at all," Cross-Call said. "It is really their side that is trying to make it into an issue that it isn't.''

A proposal to put a constitutional amendment before the voters died in House and Senate committees last year because, lawmakers agreed, the votes weren't there.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Hollis French, D-Anchorage, doesn't expect this year will be any different.

"The votes weren't here last year and I think there are fewer votes this year. I think it's out of reach," said French, who added that he did not expect "a hammer blow mandate" from the election.

Still, proponents continue to push the issue. The House State Affairs Committee recently moved a measure out of committee that is identical to the one that floundered last year.

Coghill said Alaskans should weigh in.

"Either the people or the (Alaska) Supreme Court will decide this issue and I think the people should,'' he said.

• Associated Press Writer Anne Sutton in Juneau contributed to this report.

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