3 New Hampshire legislators sponsor partner benefits bill

Posted on 15 Feb 2007 at 8:29pm
By Norma Love Associated Press

Proposed law would satisfy superior court ruling ordering state to provide health insurance coverage to partners of gay employees

CONCORD, N.H. Health insurance benefits provided to married state workers should be extended to their gay co-workers as a matter of fairness, witnesses told a House committee Monday, Feb. 12.

Rep. Ed Butler, D-Harts Location, urged lawmakers to require the state to provide domestic partner benefits in law instead of leaving it to the state and the workers’ union to negotiate as part of their contract. Butler said contracts can be changed.

Last year, a superior court judge ruled that partners of gay state workers are entitled to health coverage under the state’s plan. The judge reasoned that the state discriminates against gay couples because state law prohibits them from marrying to obtain benefits available to heterosexual workers.

The state appealed to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, Butler and two other lawmakers filed the bill to require the state to provide the coverage.

The bill defines a domestic partner as a person of the same sex who shares a residence with the state worker and who is at least 18 years old. Partners can’t be married to another person, related by blood or in another domestic partnership.

Butler said more than 9,000 employers in the country offer domestic partner benefits and the fiscal impact has been minimal. One study estimates the state’s costs would rise 0.4 percent, he said.

Butler said he has been in a committed relationship with a man for 29 years, but could not put him on the health insurance plan he was entitled to purchase as a legislator. The bill would be an incremental step forward by providing the option to gay state workers in similar relationships, he said.

“We have not created benefits where none existed,” he said.

Claire Ebel of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said requiring the state to provide the benefits was a matter of fundamental justice since the state denies gays the right to marry and acquire them that way.

Some committee members asked why the bill did not apply to all the state’s employers, while others asked if it inadvertently required local governments to provide domestic partner benefits.

In answer to the first question, Butler said the bill was intended as an incremental step only.

Unmarried heterosexual couples living together have the option to marry that gays do not have, he said.

“We can make this change successfully,” he said. “Better to make some change than none at all.”

In answer to the second question, he said he only intended to cover state workers and not mandate that local governments provide the coverage.

Co-sponsor Marlene DeChane, D-Barrington, said the bill also would end inconsistencies in how state agencies interpret gay workers’ rights to leaves of absence in family emergencies.

Gary Smith, president of the State Employees’ Association, said the union has tried unsuccessfully to get the state to include the benefits in the collective bargaining agreement.

“We have tried,” he said. “There is not the political will from the state as an employer, at least up to this point,” he said.

Gov. John Lynch, while he was a state university system trustee, supported domestic-partner benefits for college employees. He has said he supports discussing similar benefits for state workers during contract negotiations.

No one testified against the bill.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 16, 2007.

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