Dallas County judge says he’ll push for Commissioners Court to vote on issue despite lack of support from regional government partner agency
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said this week he was finalizing a proposal for the county to offer health benefits to the same-sex partners of employees next year.
“I’m going to push for a vote when we have a plan we can put before people,” Jenkins said. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll have DP benefits for county employees effective Jan. 1, 2013.”
Jenkins said he’s working with Commissioner Elba Garcia on the plan and will present it to the Commissioners Court when it’s ready. He said he would have to get Commissioner John Wiley Price, the third member of the court’s Democratic majority, on board to pass the benefits and add them to the budget. Commissioners have already started voting on 2013 budget items, including voting to increase their salaries this week.
Dr. Garcia told Dallas Voice Thursday, Sept. 6, that the timeline for completing the DP benefits proposal is two to three weeks.
Under the plan, Dallas County would offer the benefits outside the Public Employee Benefits Cooperative, a multi-county government partner agency designed to help keep the cost of health insurance affordable. That’s because when the issue was discussed at August’s PEBC board meeting, representatives from Tarrant and Denton counties threatened to veto a vote in favor of adding the benefits.
Jenkins said because the plan is outside the PEBC, commissioners do not have to vote on it before Oct. 1 for open enrollment. He said they have until Jan. 1 to approve the DP benefits, but he would like to see a vote in September or October.
Commissioner Price, who cast the third and deciding vote in favor of transgender nondiscrimination protections for Dallas County employees last year, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment this week. Also not returning calls were the two Republican Dallas County commissioners, Maurine Dickey and Mike Cantrell.
The members of the PEBC board are Jenkins, Garcia, Dallas County Human Resources Director Mattye Mauldin-Taylor, Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley, Tarrant County Commissioner Roy Brooks, Tarrant County Human Resources Director Tina Glenn and Denton County Judge Mary Horn. The other two members, the North Texas Tollway Authority and Parker County, do not have seats on the board.
Horn, who chairs the PEBC board, told Dallas Voice this week that Jenkins placed DP benefits on the board’s agenda as a discussion item, not an action item. After Jenkins explained his reasoning, Horn said she questioned how domestic partners would be verified to guard against possible fraud.
“Unfortunately we all know that there are people out there that don’t tell the truth and take advantage,” Horn told the Voice. “The system is in place at this point and time to provide a marriage license and that’s pretty good proof to me. If these people [same-sex partners] want to get insurance [on their own], they can certainly do that. If Dallas County wants to pursue this, they’re welcome to do so, but not as part of PEBC.”
Jenkins has said that DP benefits are an issue of equality and that offering them would make the county more competitive. But Horn countered that verifying domestic partners would be an “administrative nightmare” and that Jenkins’ “whole argument for me just doesn’t hold water because there’s nothing to prohibit people from buying their own insurance.”
Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, an out lesbian who oversees the county’s largest department, told Dallas Voice this week she supports the county offering the benefits in 2013 and would work with the commissioners to move ahead with the plan.
“To continue offering one category of employees fewer benefits than others is unfair and makes it more difficult to attract the best possible job candidates,” she said. “We want to be fair to all of our employees and treat them with equality. Providing domestic partner benefits to county employees is an important step toward building a fair and inclusive work environment and a strong county government, and I am in favor of it.”
Gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons, who did not return calls this week, has been outspoken in his support of the county offering DP benefits. Fitzsimmons said in July that he doesn’t believe the PEBC has any control over whether Dallas County offers DP benefits.
“Dallas County can decide what it wants to cover and not cover without being subject to review by an outside agency,” Fitzsimmons told Dallas Voice. “We’re self-insured. We can do whatever we want. These are choices that are well within the purviews of the court.”
Rafael McDonnell, communications and advocacy manager at Resource Center Dallas, said he has been working with commissioners since early July to provide them with information about DP benefits. He said people should contact the commissioners to voice how important the benefits are to employees.
“I think that people need to speak up and say that this is something we want to see happen,” he said. “There’s a very tight window.”
Contact info commissioners is below:
County Judge Clay Jenkins – 214-653-7949
Dist. 1 Maurine Dickey – 214-653-7552
Dist. 2 Mike Cantrell – 214-653-6100
Dist. 3 John Wiley Price – 214-653-6671
Dist. 4 Dr. Elba Garcia – 214-653-6670
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 7, 2012.