Gay benefits debate fizzles

After emotional hearings, legislature lacks interest in measure denying health benefits

Posted: Sunday, April 09, 2006

What some describe as a "clarification," Shirley Dean calls "hate legislation."

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A measure before the state Legislature would amend the Alaska Constitution's ban on gay marriage to also deny health and other spousal benefits to the same-sex partners of public employees. The state Supreme Court ordered the benefits last fall, and efforts to overturn the decision appear to be sputtering in the wake of emotional legislative hearings.

Some Republican majority leaders were outraged by the ruling. Gov. Frank Murkowski called it "shameful," and this January resolutions were filed in the state House and Senate with the aim of trumping the court's decision.

Dean, with her late partner Carla Timpone, was one of nine lesbian and gay couples who filed a lawsuit against the state of Alaska in 1999 seeking benefits.

The couple felt that Dean, a child support enforcement officer for the state, should be able to provide coverage for Timpone, who had quit her job to care for her elderly parents.

"I didn't think it was fair that I couldn't have equal benefits for equal work," she said. "In my office there was an employee with a spouse and two children who paid the same amount of insurance that I did and I couldn't cover Carla."

Timpone took another job so she would have health insurance, and she continued to work to maintain her benefits even after she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died in 2004.

Dean's voice is tinged with grief and anger when she speaks of the legislative move to undo a court victory that came too late for her partner of 25 years.

"I don't think it should be voted on. I don't think you can legislate equality," she said.

Last October, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that the state had a constitutional obligation to offer benefits to same-sex couples, reopening a debate some thought was resolved eight years ago.

Alaska was one of the first states to ban gay marriage when voters in 1998 approved a constitutional amendment limiting marriage to a union between one man and one woman.

The ban did not address benefits, however, and the high court said the marriage amendment left homosexual couples in a Catch 22: They could never become eligible for benefits offered to married couples because, unlike heterosexual domestic partners, the state would not allow them to marry. The court said that violates the state's guarantee of equal protection for all Alaskans.

One sponsor of this year's legislation, Sen. Ralph Seekins, said it was a matter of putting the question back to voters to clarify what they intended in 1998.

"Many people thought they were closing the door to marital benefits," the Fairbanks Republican said. "Was that what they meant or not?"

The proposed measure would add a second sentence to the original marriage amendment to restrict the "rights, benefits, obligations, qualities or effects of marriage" to married couples.

But the movement appears to be running out of steam.

Lawmakers are already consumed this session with a complex overhaul of the state's oil tax system that has crowded out most other legislation. Meanwhile, hearings on the constitutional amendment have been jam-packed and heavily lopsided against the measure - which requires a two-thirds vote of each body of the Legislature to pass. If approved by lawmakers, the question would be put to voters in a statewide election.

The hearings so far have drawn gays and lesbians, their mothers, fathers and friends, high school students, ministers, civil rights advocates and community leaders. Opponents say the proposed constitutional amendment would ask Alaska voters to write discrimination into the constitution.

Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, describes the emotion-laden debate as "painful" and, though she supports the measure, she doesn't see the point in moving it from committee in its current form.

"I would like to see a more broad support from the Senate," she said.

Likewise, a companion measure is being held in the House Judiciary Committee.

But North Pole Republican John Coghill said he wants to get beyond the emotional debate and stick to the legal question of what is marriage.

"I believe the court was wrong, and this is not an equal protection issue," he said.

Coghill said marriage is a responsibility that also comes with certain privileges designed to keep the institution strong. He said while he is trying not to make a judgment call, he does not see same-sex couples as "a healthy addition to society," and he fears the consequences - socially and economically - of creating "two tiers of marriage."

Carrie Evans of the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group, said Alaska occupies a unique spot in the nationwide debate over gay marriage. While other states have addressed the issue of benefits, the question has always been paired with a marriage amendment.

"None have ever run campaigns by saying, 'Not only will this prohibit marriage but it will make sure that state workers and other public employees do not get benefits,"' she said. "Here though, there's no hiding the intent."

Kevin Clarkson, an Anchorage attorney who was paid $50,000 by the Legislative Council to help draft the measure's language, said the amendment would simply bring Alaska in line with marriage amendments sweeping the country.

He said 11 of 19 marriage amendments contain provisions that prohibit extending benefits to same-sex partners.

On the other hand, constitutional amendments to limit marriage have been defeated in 28 state legislatures in the last three years, while 11 states do offer domestic partner benefits, according to the Human Rights Campaign.

The state doesn't track the number of private employers who offer domestic partner benefits, but many large companies do, including Alaska Airlines, Providence Health System Alaska, BP Exploration, Chevron and Wells Fargo, as well as some government entities such as the University of Alaska and the city of Juneau.

With about a month left in the legislative session, it appears the majority of Alaska lawmakers have little appetite for the debate.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said it just seems like a distraction at this point.

"I'd feel much more comfortable with something that tried to get more Alaskans heath care coverage, instead of trying to figure out how to get fewer Alaskans health care coverage," he said.

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