By Tara Cavanaugh
Republicans against offering benefits for partners of state employees have decried the cost, but a recent estimate shows the benefits will cost much less than projected.
State employees have until Sept. 30 to opt into the benefits. So far, less than 100 of them have opted in, which means the state would pay roughly $600,000, said Matt Fedorchuk, spokesman for the Michigan Civil Service Commission. “The enrollment period is still going on right now,” Fedorchuk said. “It’s preliminary numbers.”
The MCSC is an independent, state-constitution-created authority that administers human resources for state employees. After negotiating with state employee unions, the MCSC voted in January to allow state employees to share benefits with an “Other Eligible Adult.” The OEA would have to have lived with the state employee for more than one year, could not be a tenant and could not be related. The OEA’s dependents would also be eligible. The benefits are set to take effect Oct. 1.
But state Republican lawmakers, citing a cost as high as $8 million, have tried several times to overturn the benefits. First they tried to get a two-thirds majority vote in the House and Senate to overturn the MCSC decision. Then they tried to penalize universities that offered the benefits – which Gov. Rick Snyder’s legal counsel called unconstitutional. Republican Gov. Bill Schuette has sued the MCSC over the benefits. Last week, Republican state representative Dave Agema, R-Grandville, introduced bills to prohibit universities and city governments from offering the benefits. The bills have passed the House and now need to pass the Senate, which has already made clear its intent to get rid of the benefits.
“We’ve known all along that anti-gay activists have been inflating the potential costs of domestic partner heath care benefits for state employees,” said Michael Gregor, spokesman for Equality Michigan. “Only a very specific group of ‘other eligible adults’ can use the program, so it makes sense that the preliminary number is small. In the end, this isn’t about costs – this is about doing what’s fair and providing equal access to health care benefits. Republican extremists are hiding behind excuses about costs for each anti-gay bill they’ve introduced this year.”
The debate over offering the benefits brings up questions of constitutionality. No MCSC decision has ever been overturned by the legislature in the commission’s 108-year history.
The debate also brings up questions of fiscal vs. social issues. Some Republicans have called the issue purely a fiscal one, citing the high cost. But $600,000 is little when compared to the state’s overall $43 billion budget.
Other Republicans have called the issue a social one – that offering benefits for “roommates” or “partners” goes against the anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution in 2004. In 2008, the State Supreme Court ruled that public institutions could not offer “domestic partner benefits” because it sounded too similar to benefits shared between husbands and wives. But in that 2008 decision, the justices admitted that offering benefits to another unrelated adult would not be unconstitutional.
After that 2008 decision, universities changed language in their policies to still offer domestic partner benefits, just under another name, such as “plus-one” or “Other Eligible Adult” benefits.