LANSING – The Ingham County Board of Commissioners has approved a new program to provide insurance to its employees in domestic partnerships.
Matthew Myers, controller and administrator for Ingham County, said the new program is still being assembled: “Bob Smith, our insurance coordinator, is putting the packages together, then sending them out to the attorneys. Then, the packages will be available for review, after that.”
The program was approved just three weeks ago, Myers said, and he expects the new program will be in effect by July 1, when the current same-sex domestic partnership program ends.
Currently, Myers said, four employees have taken advantage of the same-sex domestic partnership program approved by the county several years ago. That program was available only to same-sex partners of employees of the county, but no longer is.
Myers said the changes were necessary because of the state’s 2004 constitutional amendment, which forbids the recognition of any marriage or similar union between anyone other than one man and one woman. A circuit court judge ruled that the amendment did not apply to domestic-partnership benefits, but the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying that domestic partner benefits could not be offered to same-sex partnerships based solely on the same-sex partnerships. The state Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case in November 2007, and a ruling from the court is expected before the end of the court’s session on July 31.
Under the appeals-court decision, public employers cannot offer benefits based on same-sex relationship statuses; however, they can develop other criteria which do not take into account the sexual orientation of the employee and the person they wish to add to their insurance. After the ruling, state Attorney General Mike Cox said the ruling would not nullify current benefits offered as a result of collective bargaining agreements. However, he said once those contracts expired, the public employers would have to drop same-sex only benefits.
Ingham County is one of many public institutions that has had to revamp its domestic partners programs in order to be in line with the state appeals-court ruling. Michigan State University was first out of the gate with a designation it calls “other eligible individuals,” which was picked up by the City of Kalamazoo as well as Ann Arbor Public Schools. The University of Michigan has developed a similar program. Lansing Community College, the only community college in Michigan offering domestic partner benefits, ended its non-contract benefits program this past fall.
The new programs, including the Ingham County program, expand coverage by defining “other eligible individuals” based on criteria such as cohabitation for at least 18 months, shared bank accounts and other proof of shared-living expenses.
Opponents of domestic-partner benefits for same sex partners, like Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan, have said in numerous media interviews that the new programs are legal.