Alaska House fails to move same-sex benefits amendment

Representatives could reconsider vote if it gets two-thirds majority

Posted: Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Alaska House on Monday failed to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters the chance to deny court-ordered benefits for same-sex partners of public employees.

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However, representatives could reconsider the vote if backers can muster a two-thirds majority, which is needed for the proposed amendment to move to a statewide vote.

Resolution sponsor John Coghill, R-North Pole, asked for reconsideration after the measure failed 22-14. Twenty-seven votes in the House and 14 votes in the Senate are needed to reach the required majority.

An identical resolution was introduced in the Senate in late April but has not had a committee hearing. The Senate measure has three committee referrals before it can reach the floor for a vote. The Legislature adjourns next May 16.

The resolution would allow a constitutional amendment to be placed on the statewide election ballot that, if passed, could overturn an Alaska Supreme Court order that required health and retirement benefits be offered to the partners of gay state employees.

Opponents say the issue is about providing earned health care benefits to those employees. Proponents of the amendment say it is a veiled attempt to legitimize homosexuality and undermine marriage as defined by voters in 1998 in the state constitution as between a man and a woman.

Coghill urged lawmakers to allow Alaskans to weigh in on the state Supreme Court's ruling.

"Only one group can say, 'We disagree,' and that is the people of Alaska and I argue that we should let the people chime in on it," Coghill said.

Rep. Lindsey Holmes, D-Anchorage, said the state's constitution should protect the rights of the minority.

"It should not be used to take away the rights of people," Holmes said.

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 constitution's guarantee of equal protection.

Further political and legal wrangling postponed the benefits until the state's high court this winter told the state it was tired of the delays and ordered it to provide the benefits as of Jan. 1.

During the open enrollment period, 67 state employees signed up their partners for benefits, 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.

In an April 3 advisory vote, 53 percent of Alaska voters said lawmakers should send the proposed constitutional amendment to the November 2008 ballot. However, that vote - which cost the state about $775,000 - had no binding authority.

The measure is House Joint Resolution 9.

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