House votes to challenge courts on state benefits

Legislators pass a bill to set up vote for constitutional amendment, the adjourn

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006

The state House essentially thumbed its nose at a court order to provide state employment benefits for gay couples and adjourned a special session Friday.

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House Republicans said the less-than-week-long session - which is estimated to cost about $25,000 a day - was money well spent.

House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said lawmakers sent the public a message that the Legislature, and not the courts or the administration, should decide employment benefits.

"If the court forces it on us, then it forces it on us. We just want the public to understand it's the court doing it," he said.

Democrats said lawmakers could have accomplished the same thing by writing a letter.

"I think history will look back and say this Legislature tried to stop the march of progress, the march of civil rights, the march of health care," said Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage.

The House approved a measure that would prohibit the administration from granting the court-ordered health and retirement benefits for same-sex partners of state employees.

It also passed a bill to set up a statewide advisory vote next spring asking the public if a constitutional amendment should go on the 2008 general election ballot that could overturn the court's ruling and take away those benefits.

Members gaveled out immediately after the vote, leaving the Senate to decide if it will concur with the legislation when it returns on Sunday.

Both bodies earlier passed resolutions asking the Alaska Supreme Court to allow time for a new legislature to address the issue.

Few expect the measures will sway the court or prevent the benefits from taking effect with the new year.

One of the sponsors, Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole, said their real purpose was a challenge to the court's order.

"I understand it creates a constitutional tension, and I do not shrink from it and I do not apologize for it," Coghill said.

Democrats warned the Legislature's actions could lead to discrimination against gays. That could affect state job recruitment, said Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage.

"It will further aggravate the loss of good public servants in the state and affect our ability to recruit them," Gruenberg said.

The state Supreme Court ruled in October 2005 that the state was violating the Alaska Constitution's guarantee of equal protection by not allowing gay couples the same employment benefits that their married co-workers enjoy. It later ordered the state to offer the benefits by Jan. 1.

Although the state Department of Administration drew up regulations, Lt. Gov. Loren Leman questioned the authority of its commissioner, Scott Nordstrand, to see them through. Gov. Frank Murkowski asked lawmakers to come back and make clear the commissioner's ability to grant the benefits.

Majority legislators took a different tack however. They considered legislation that would have levied misdemeanor charges against Nordstrand for having set up the benefits plan that was ordered by the court. That proposal was debated and dropped.

Although critical of the measures that did pass the House, Berkowitz said debate is healthy and he looks forward to the public discussion before the spring advisory vote.

"In a democracy, the more sunshine you can shine on a problem, the better off we will all be," Berkowitz said.

However, he said, even if the advisory vote heavily favors a constitutional amendment, the Legislature is unlikely to muster the two-thirds vote it would need to put it on the ballot.

Coghill said voters should weigh in.

"If the people say ... give them equal protection, I will bow to the will of the people," he said. "But I will probably still grouse about it and in my religion I will preach against it."

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