By Dawn Wolfe
LANSING – Dec. 2, email lists and phone lines erupted with the news that the State Employer’s office had decided to drop domestic partner benefits from state employee contracts that had already been negotiated and agreed to by the state and several unions. The worst fears of Proposal 2’s many opponents, that it would deny or take away vital health insurance benefits for same-gender partners and their children, seemed on its way to being realized.
Compounding this discouraging news, none of the state’s LGBT rights organizations had been contacted ahead of time about the decision. In fact, both Triangle Foundation Executive Director Jeffrey Montgomery and Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s LGBT project, first learned of the state’s decision from a Detroit Free Press reporter.
“The governor’s office and the union representatives are being overly cautious. Proponents of Proposal 2 kept telling voters it was only about marriage, the amendment wasn’t about domestic partnership benefits, and people believed it. But this decision shows that just wasn’t true. We warned them. Eliminating domestic partnership benefits from the current contract exposes those people who backed Proposal 2 for the deceitful scoundrels that they are,” said Montgomery.
“Sure there’s a chance they could add the benefits back in, but now we have a broader issue of what the jackals will claim they can do next to limit our rights after such a decision,” said Montgomery. “This is about as punitive as you can get for gay people in Michigan.”
According to UAW Lobbyist Alan Kilar, the decision to shelve the benefits was made by a mutual agreement between the unions and the state. The benefits are still part of the contracts.
“It was withdrawn from the presentation to the civil service commission,” Kilar said, “but is still in the contract.”
The decision not to present the benefits appeared to be a strategic one intended to protect the benefits in the long run. However, the apparent lack of coordination created news headlines claiming Governor Jennifer Granholm had “removed the benefits” from the negotiating table, much to the glee of right-wing proponents of Proposal 2.
“If it’s (DP benefits) turned down from the get-go, they (the Civil Service Commission) have the right to do that, [and] that would have been the end of the argument,” Kilar said. “We feel we would have a better chance if we went to the civil service with a court ruling that this is a legal benefit.”
However, State Employer David Fink’s version of the story differs. “We didn’t make a judgment on that (having the votes on the Commission),” Fink said, “it (the decision to shelve the benefits) was more that this is an unusual legal question and we did not want to increase the conflict and tension that would come from our proceeding as though nothing had changed.”
“I can only say that we felt that the benefits would more likely be approved [by the Commission] if a court had already determined that [they’re] legal,” added Fink. One member of the four-member Commission was appointed by Governor Granholm; the other three are Engler appointees.
The decision to shelve the benefits came on the heels of news that outgoing state Rep. Ken Bradstreet (R-Gaylord) had sponsored resolutions condemning the benefits, which, if approved, would be offered to same-gender partners of state employees for the first time in Michigan’s history. Hearings on the resolutions were scheduled for Dec. 2, but were cancelled subsequent to the decision to shelve the benefits. Bradstreet also removed a resolution from the table that would have requested Attorney General Cox to rule on the legalities of domestic partner benefits for same-gender couples.
“During the Proposal 2 campaign, those of us who opposed it warned that the forces pushing it wanted to penalize and devalue gays and lesbians. They insisted that their concern was only about defining marriage – marriage specifically – and was not aimed at our benefits and health care. Well, we were right. They lied. So much for moral values,” said Montgomery.
“Bradstreet is doing the advance work for what we’ve been expecting – the further denigration of gays and lesbians in Michigan. We endured a mean and deceitful campaign, now the other shoe is dropping and the lies that were sold in the service of homophobic hate are coming into the clear light of day,” Montgomery added.
The road to court
One thing that all the parties involved agree on is that the issue will wind up in court – but the charge to litigation will not be led by Granholm’s office, despite her open letter of Dec. 3 in which the Governor stated, “I continue to support domestic partner benefits. … However, with the passage of Proposal 2 in Michigan, a legal cloud now surrounds the question of whether the state can move forward.”
According to Fink, “We are not planning on filing a lawsuit” requesting a summary judgment that the benefits are legal.
It seems the task of clearing a “legal cloud” hanging over LGBT citizens’ rights will be left to the ACLU – but this time, the fight will be joined by the state’s unions.
According to Kaplan, “We are exploring our legal options. We’re talking with the unions and our legal team, and we just have to determine the best way to approach this thing.”
Kilar voiced his union’s willingness to fight for the benefits as well. “I know we’re not going to let it go without having some resolution to this,” he said. “We’re not going to let it die.”
The Michigan Federation of Teachers released this statement on Dec. 3: “The Michigan Federation of Teachers & School Related Personnel joins the UAW in their efforts to preserve the domestic partner language in their recently negotiated contract for their state employee members.”
The MFT&SRP understands that the fight for DP benefits could extend to their already-negotiated contracts as well.
“As similar language appears in several of our locals’ contracts, we feel strongly that health care benefits for all our members, their partners and families is a priority,” said MFT&SRP President David Hecker.
Kaplan and Kilar agree that a legal challenge is at least a month or two away.
“Every person in Michigan, especially those who were taken in by the dishonest pro-Prop. 2 campaign, should feel incensed and betrayed. Those who advance such treachery need to be held accountable,” said Montgomery.