By Tara Cavanaugh
A committee in the Michigan House approved two bills last Tuesday that restrict public employee benefits only to married couples. Now the bills will go to the House floor for debate.
The House Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee held a public hearing on HB-4770 and HB-4771, both sponsored by Rep. Dave Agema, R-Grandville. The first bill prohibits state employers from offering health benefits to anyone who is not married to the employee. The latter bill reiterates that restriction for public schools, which would also include universities.
“The people voted in 2004, that for purposes of benefits, you have to be married,” Agema said in an audio clip on the GOP House website. “So (HB-4770) basically says there are no same-sex unmarried benefits.”
In 2004, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, which defined marriage as only between a man and a woman. In 2008, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that public institutions that offered “domestic partner benefits” were in violation of state law.
So far, public employers have been able to get around that 2008 ruling and provide health benefits to unmarried couples. But those benefits aren’t called “domestic partner benefits.” They’re called benefits for “other eligible adults,” and they allow an unrelated adult to access health benefits from a state or university employee. In the bills discussed on the House floor last week, these benefits are referred to as “fringe benefits.”
“Other eligible adult” benefits are set to take effect in October for state employees. The state employee unions negotiated for the benefits in January. State Republicans tried to overturn the benefits, and they needed to muster a two-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate to do so. They succeeded in the Senate, but not in the House.
After that failure, Republicans inserted language into their budget proposal this spring that penalized universities five percent of their state funding for offering the fringe benefits. But Rick Snyder’s legal counsel warned in a letter that the penalty was unconstitutional and unenforceable.
“The point of the letter was that universities have a certain autonomy,” said Emily Dievendorf, policy director of Equality Michigan. “That might apply to this as well. The letter didn’t talk about these bills, but they are in the same vein. That’s a discussion that’s likely going to come up when it gets to the House floor. We can’t assume these will easily fly through the rest of the legislature.”
Dievendorf said that HB-4770 and HB-4771 would be not voted on before the current legislative session breaks for summer. There are no companion bills yet in the Michigan Senate.
“While these benefits are often used by both straight and gay couples, anti-gay lawmakers are specifically trying to deny gay couples the ability to care for their families,” Dievendorf said. “Hard-working state employees should be compensated appropriately, and that’s why these benefits are offered. Rep. Agema’s radically biased social agenda is out of touch with Michigan values.”
The House Oversight, Reform and Ethics Committee consists of Bradford C. Jacobsen, R-46; Cynthia S. Denby, R-47; Amanda Price, R-89; Timothy Bledsoe, D-1; and Lisa Brown, D- 1. Tom McMillin, R-45, is the committee chair.