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Public criticizes same-sex proposal

State to hold hearing in Anchorage, take written comment through Saturday

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2006

Alaska would be preparing "a recipe for disaster" by imposing its proposal for extending spousal benefits to same-sex couples next year, said a woman who argued Wednesday she still sees discrimination in the court-ordered rules.

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Addressing a public hearing at the State Office Building, Juneau resident Terri Lauterbach said the rules begin with the problem of requiring same-sex couples to show they have the same kind of relationship as married couples without the set of laws that married people have.

"The real clinker in the whole recipe is that we have a cook who doesn't really want things to turn out OK because it doesn't like those at the table, and the cook's only preparing the meal because someone else - the court system - said it had to do so," she said, accusing Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration of not wanting to extend the benefits.

The fact that Alaska law prohibits same-sex couples from marrying was at the center of last year's Alaska Supreme Court decision requiring the state establish a policy for couples in same-sex relationships by the beginning of 2007. By denying them the opportunity to marry, the state is denying them the ability to qualify for employee benefits, the court said.

Presiding at the Wednesday hearing, Department of Administration Commissioner Scott Nordstrand said in addition to a hearing today in Anchorage, the department will continue to take written public comment through Saturday. The final recommendation is due to the lieutenant governor by Oct. 15.

Traci Carpenter, state director of retirement and benefits, said the policy will be in place in late November to allow employees to enroll in the benefits program before the end of the year.

Although only a few people spoke during Wednesday's public hearing - all looking for a simpler policy - at least 40 or 50 people have submitted comments in writing, Carpenter said. She has no idea how many employees would apply for same-sex partner benefits, she added.

No one spoke in defense of the proposal. When one person asked a question of Nordstrand, he said he could only take public comment.

Nine couples filed the original lawsuit challenging the lack of benefits for same-sex partners of Alaska state and Anchorage municipal employees. In August, Anchorage Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides wrote that she found the proposed rules overly stringent and the proposed benefits overly narrow.

People testifying Wednesday questioned if the language failing to make same-sex partners eligible for death benefits might be an oversight but they said it certainly should be corrected.

A big problem is that the proposed requirements are more burdensome, said Marsha Buck, a retired Juneau resident representing PFLAG - Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. While a man and woman would qualify for benefits as soon as they marry, the proposal would require a same-sex couple to be in their relationship for 12 months before qualifying. It also would require same-sex couples to annually document the fact they are still together.

The regulations also require that same-sex couples meet at least six of nine requirements - such as joint ownership of property, a motor vehicle or bank account; being primary beneficiaries in each other's wills; or having joint responsibility of a child.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska also has questioned the requirement.

In court filings, Assistant Attorney General Virginia Ragle argued that all of the couples that brought the original lawsuit would qualify.

In a filing with the court, Ragle defended the 12-month, writing that it shows same-sex couples have a substantial relationship. The plaintiffs have no constitutional grounds to object to it, she added.

"The Alaska Supreme Court did not order the state to treat all lesbian and gay couples in exactly the manner the state treats married couples for the purposes of eligibility for employment-related partner benefits," Ragle wrote. "There are very likely a wide range of options that will be constitutional."

Buck said she and her partner would not be able to meet six of the nine requirements.

"The main point is many married couples wouldn't be able to meet six of the nine," she said later.

Lauterbach said one of the reasons the rules fail is that they "require gay people to get their possibly bigoted landlord to put both names on a lease and require a possibly bigoted bank to give them a joint mortgage."

Teri Burke, plan manager for the National Education Association Alaska Health Plan, testified the trust fund that insures about 4,800 non-administrative school employees statewide, including Juneau, doesn't require same-sex couples to provide annual documentation of their continuing relationship.

"We affect about 14,000 lives," she said. "We have not had abuse," she said. It has been more common for married couples to divorce and not notify their insurance plan, probably as an oversight.

"We treat them as adults," she said. The plan requires unmarried people in "financially interdependent relationships" to meet five of eight requirements to qualify. "We do feel some criteria have to be established."

She said the trustees of the NEA trust plan are responsible to a self-insurance trust providing coverage and are in a different situation than the state.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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