Governor calls for session on state benefits

Lawmakers face deadline to decide same-sex policies

Posted: Sunday, October 29, 2006

ANCHORAGE - Gov. Frank Murkowski on Friday called a special session of the Legislature to determine how the state of Alaska should implement court-ordered benefits for same-sex domestic partners of state employees and retirees.

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Scott Nordstrand, commissioner of the Department of Administration, said he requested Murkowski call a special session because Lt. Gov. Loren Leman questioned his authority to implement the regulations. The state is facing a Jan. 1, 2007, deadline.

Nordstrand said he wants to make sure the regulations that are adopted can withstand any legal challenge.

"This is to solve a very real problem in short order," he said, at a news conference held outside Superior Court in Anchorage.

The 30-day session is scheduled to start Nov. 13.

However, Nordstrand said if the Legislature - which didn't take up the issue during its regular session and two subsequent special sessions on the natural gas pipeline contract - failed to implement regulations, he would.

In the meantime, it is in the state's best interests to have the Legislature take up the matter, he said.

"A policy matter of this import is best addressed by the Legislature and the governor," he said in a letter sent to Murkowski on Friday.

Murkowski, in calling for the special session, said he was disappointed in the position taken by the courts and believed they were ignoring the wishes of Alaskans who passed a constitutional amendment in 1998 establishing that marriage is between a man and a woman.

"Now that the Supreme Court has made its decision, we need to carefully craft responsible and sound legislation that protects Alaskan values while implementing the court order," Murkowski said.

The state's health and retirement benefits plan covers approximately 5,000 people at a cost of $340 million, Nordstrand said. The cost of extending benefits to same-sex partners won't be known until the regulations are finalized, he said.

The issue goes back to 1999 when the American Civil Liberties Union and nine couples filed a lawsuit challenging the lack of benefits for same-sex couples employed by the state and the municipality of Anchorage.

About a year ago, the state Supreme Court ordered the state of Alaska to extend benefits to same-sex couples, finding that denying them violated the state's guarantee of equal protection for all Alaskans. That's because the state constitution restricts marriage to between a man and a woman.

In June, the court ordered the state and the municipality of Anchorage to provide the benefits. It set the January deadline for having the benefits in place and sent the lawsuit back to a lower court for implementation.

Last month, Superior Court Judge Stephanie Joannides sided with the ACLU in finding that the regulations proposed by the state were too restrictive. The judge also found that the types of benefits to be offered to same-sex couples were too narrow.

The proposed rules, for example, required that same-sex coupled attest to being in a committed relationship for at least 12 months and document each year they are still together. Joannides found that requirement to be "excessively burdensome."

Plaintiffs' attorney Allison Mendel said the state's pared down criteria list includes providing proof in the form of legal documents such as wills, life insurance policies and jointly held real estate.

Many of those things are easily subject to change and could bump deserving couples off the eligibility list, she said.

"It is just really cumbersome," Mendel said.

Nordstrand said the call for a special session was prompted by the ACLU last week asking the court to issue emergency regulations adopting the municipality's proposed criteria for same-sex benefits. Those criteria require little more than that same-sex couples live together and share household expenses, Nordstrand said.

"That threshold could be easily met by any roommate," he said.

Nordstrand said he expected to hear back from the court about the proposed regulations on Monday.

Michael Macleod-Ball, executive director of the ACLU of Alaska, said he was pleased to see the regulatory process going forward with a special session.

"I just hope they don't choose to take away what we've won through the judicial process," he said.

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