WATCH: Equality Texas Lege Update

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The state Legislature is more than halfway through its session, but this week three pro-equality bills had hearings in committees.

The House Insurance Committee heard HB 226, which deals with insurance discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, and HB 1140, which would allow the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems to offer health benefits to domestic partners. The systems say they need legislation passed to allow them to offer DP benefits under the Texas Insurance Code.

The House Human Services Committee had a hearing on HB 2240, which would study homelessness among the state’s youth and would offer solutions to help lower the number of youth on the street.  Estimates show that 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBT, so this is considered a pro-equality bill.

Watch Equality Texas’ weekly legislative update below.

—  Anna Waugh

DART committee may vote on domestic partner benefits plans this afternoon

DART

After six months of discussion, DART’s administrative committee will review and possibly vote on one of three domestic partner benefits plans this afternoon.

The committee was expected to meet in January to discuss potential plans, but DART consultants were still working on the financial impact.

The first of the three proposed plans would extend benefits to same-sex domestic partners and their children. The second would extend benefits to both same- and opposite-sex domestic partners and children. And the third would extend benefits to same- and opposite-sex partners, children and another family member, according to the DART presentation materials.

DART’s consultant originally estimated adding DP benefits would cost $105,000 to $210,000, but the estimated costs on the proposal show $6,742 on the low side for the plan that covers only same-sex partners and their children to more than $1.6 million on the high end of the third plan that would also include a family member.

DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said the committee will discuss the plans at today’s meeting. If they vote to send a plan to the full board, it could be voted on as early as Feb. 26.

Resource Center Dallas CEO Cece Cox said after working with DART on this issue for two years, she’s glad the plans are being considered.

“I’m glad they’re moving forward with a plan for implementing equality for all of their employees,” she said, adding that they should approve one to send to the full board.

See the full explanation of the plans below.

—  Anna Waugh

Domestic partner benefits appear stalled on the tracks at DART

LGBT advocates are encouraging people to contact DART board members after a scheduled discussion of domestic partner benefits was delayed for at least the third time in five months.

A DP benefits plan was expected to be presented to DART’s administrative committee Tuesday, Jan. 8, but spokesman Morgan Lyons said the committee will hear the plan in February because consultants are still working on the financial impact.

The cost of the benefits has been estimated at $105,000 to $210,000, but committee members want to see projected numbers if the plan is expanded to include relatives who live together, in an effort to prevent legal challenges. No other DP benefits plan in Texas allows blood relatives to qualify.

Claude Williams, DART board member and vice chair of the administrative committee, said he’s disappointed the plan isn’t moving forward faster. Williams said his concern is that consultants will come back with high numbers for coverage if any two people who live together qualify for the benefits, and the board will ultimately decide not to offer the benefits because of cost.

“We’ll have to wait on the numbers,” he said. “My push would be since doing this is to prevent legal challenges, whatever the difference in cost is, that’s just your cost of protecting yourself legally,” he said.

—  Anna Waugh

Dallas County employees can now enroll in DP benefits program

Gay Dallas County District Clerk Gary Fitzsimmons forwarded this document that was emailed to county employees by the human resources department. (click to enlarge)

Dallas County’s domestic partner benefits program began Jan. 1 and the human resources department already has information up online reminding people of the qualifications.

After hitting roadblocks to offer the benefits through the healthcare co-op the county is a member of, the benefits were approved 3-2 by the Commissioner’s Court on party lines in October.

Partners of same- and opposite-sex employees who do not have insurance are can receive a subsidy toward their own privately purchased plan. They must have lived together for at least six months, be 18 years or older and not currently married. The county will reimburse employees for 45 percent of their partners’ insurance or up to $295.78 monthly — the amount the county contributes toward employees’ coverage — whichever is less.

Documentation for adults and children is listed below.

—  Anna Waugh

Pflugerville school board votes to keep domestic partner benefits

About 40 people spent hours addressing the Pflugerville ISD school board Dec. 13, with fewer than 10 speaking against the benefits in a packed cafeteria.

The Pflugerville school board made history Thursday night, voting 5-1 in favor of offering domestic partner benefits to district employees.

The proposal, recommended by the district employees’ insurance commission, initially passed in October, making the school district the first in Texas to approve DP benefits. But a trustee requested a review of the plan after news that it covered same-sex couples. About 40 people spent hours addressing the board Thursday, with less then 10 speaking out against the benefits in a packed cafeteria, Austin’s KVUE reports.

“I believe that teachers who I work with down the hall from me should be able to get the same benefits that I get for my wife and my child,” said teacher August Plock, a member of the Pflugerville Educators Association that began a Change.org petition in favor of the benefits.

Shortly after Pflugerville ISD — as well as Dallas County — approved DP benefits in October, anti-gay state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, requested an opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott about whether the benefits violate Texas’ constitutional banning same-sex marriage. No word yet from Patrick, but he’s probably not happy about last night’s vote.

Unfortunately, while the issue is decided for now in Pflugerville, Dallas ISD — and most other districts in Texas — won’t be able to offer DP benefits anytime soon.

Watch KVUE’s newscast below.

—  Anna Waugh

DART’s proposal to offer DP benefits remains stalled in committee

Michael Muhammad, DART’s interim vice president of diversity, presents a potential DP benefits plan for DART employees at an administrative committee meeting on Tuesday. (Anna Waugh/Dallas Voice)

A DART committee is taking its time in studying a proposal to offer domestic partner benefits to the transit agency’s employees.

Members of DART’s administrative committee requested several sample plans complete with costs and definitions Tuesday.

After delaying a briefing on domestic partner benefits last month due to time, Michael Muhammad, DART’s interim vice president of diversity, recapped his previous presentation about other Texas governmental entities that offer the benefits, as well as Texas law that prohibits the recognition of anything identical or similar to marriage.

He said DART’s plan would include proving that applicants are in a committed relationship and share household responsibilities, and are 18 or older and unmarried. He suggested making the benefits open to blood relatives, which all other Texas plans prohibit.

Muhammad brought up Attorney General Greg Abbott’s expected opinion on DP benefits, which was requested by state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, in early November. He also said the city of El Paso’s benefits have been “legally challenged” and said it was ongoing. El Paso City Council approved the benefits in 2009 and again in 2011 after a repeal effort led by anti-gay Pastor Tom Brown overturned the council’s decision. Brown appealed the case to the Texas Supreme Court in March, but it’s unlikely the court will hear the case. Meanwhile, city employees have DP benefits.

He said the requirements for domestic partners could be as broad or as narrow as the committee wanted, suggesting that the broader the requirements are, the less likely they are to be legally challenged.

—  Anna Waugh

Petition calls for Pflugerville ISD board to reinstate domestic partner benefits

Pflugerville ISD recently became the first Texas school district to offer domestic partner benefits to its employees, both gay and straight.

But after vocal support and opposition was brought before the PSID Board of Trustees, the matter was placed on the agenda for reconsideration in December.

The board’s decision to reconsider DP benefits has prompted the Pflugerville Educators Association to launch a Change.org petition to encourage the board to keep the benefits.

The petition entitled, “Pflugerville ISD Board of Trustees: Keep insurance benefits for all PISD employees and their families” mentions that the decision to reconsider the benefits is targeting gay employees unfairly when the recommendation to add DP benefits came from “a group of dedicated district employees who were tasked with evaluating benefits in the best interest of the entire PISD family.”

“Now, a small but vocal group of Pflugerville residents is attempting to turn this decision into something it is not,” the petition reads in part. “They claim PISD is ‘pushing an agenda,’ and they are attempting to equate the benefits change to taking a stand on gay marriage. These political allegations are not true.”

The change was a result from a recommendation from the district employees’ insurance commission to add insurance coverage for opposite- and same-sex couples. PISD’s superintendent later voiced support for the decision.

Supporters and opponents of the decision showed up in force at the October PISD board meeting. Earlier this month, board members said they were unaware of the changes they agreed to in the coverage change because they had always followed previous recommendations. They agreed to reconsider the benefits at the Dec. 13 meeting.

“I want to have our board revisit the insurance issue,” PISD trustee Jimmy Don Havins told Community Impact Newspaper. “I want the board to have an up or down vote. The motion I will make is to revert to the coverage we previously had.”

—  Anna Waugh

DART panel delays DP benefits briefing

A proposal for Dallas Area Rapid Transit to offer domestic partner benefits was tabled today and will be discussed in December instead.

DART’s administrative committee was slated to hear the plan Tuesday, but time ran out before members could be briefed.

DART board member Claude Williams, the committee’s vice chair who requested a presentation on DP benefits in October, said he’ll make sure it’s a priority to hear the plan when the committee meets again on Dec. 11.

DART currently allows only spouses recognized by Texas law to be covered under employees’ health insurance. The proposal would broaden the scope of eligibility to not limit it to just spouses.

Based on the prepared presentation for Tuesday’s meeting, DART’s potential plan would follow the plans of other agencies in Texas that offer DP benefits by mandating a shared household for a minimum time period, as well as requiring domestic partners to be at least 18.

The expected cost is listed as ranging from $105,000 to $210,000 annually.

Last week, Dallas County voted to offer insurance vouchers to the domestic partners of employees. Then, on Friday, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, requested an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office about whether domestic partner benefits are legal under Texas’ constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Read the proposal for DART to offer DP benefits below.

—  Anna Waugh

Anti-gay state senator wants to outlaw domestic partner benefits in Texas

Dan Patrick

Here’s why you need to get out and vote on Tuesday if you haven’t already.

In the same week that Dallas County voted to offer health insurance vouchers to the domestic partners of employees, a tea party-backed state senator from Houston is seeking an opinion from the Texas attorney general about whether such benefits are legal under the state’s 2005 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Republican Sen. Dan Patrick’s office wrote in a press release on Friday:

In 2005, the Texas Constitution was amended to clearly define marriage as between one man and one woman. The “Marriage Amendment” went on to prohibit government entities from creating or recognizing anything identical or similar to marriage. The Marriage Amendment was passed by an overwhelming majority of the Texas legislature and ratified by more than 75 percent of Texas voters.

However, government entities across the state are gradually recognizing and extending benefits to domestic partners including the cities of El Paso, Austin and Fort Worth. Recently, Pflugerville I.S.D. became the first school district to extend benefits.

“I am submitting this request to the Attorney General in order to clarify whether or not these entities are violating the constitution and circumventing the will of the people,” said Senator Patrick.

Other entities in Texas that offer DP benefits include the city of Dallas, which has had them since 2004, and Dallas County, which as I mentioned added them this week.

Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney for the LGBT civil rights group Lambda Legal, told Instant Tea that Patrick’s letter seeking an opinion from the AG’s office doesn’t surprise him.

“I was wondering when someone would do that,” Upton said. “It was just a question of when. Texas is too big of a state, and there are too many people who hate us.”

Upton said there have been similar challenges to domestic partner benefits in other states with constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage, including Ohio and Michigan, with mixed results. But he said the issue could be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in an Arizona case that Lambda Legal is handling, Diaz v. Brewer. Both the district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals have ruled in Lambda Legal’s favor, but Republican Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who wants to strip DP benefits from state employees, appealed.

“Our position is if you decide that a benefit of employment is insuring your spouse, and then you turn around and say as a gay person, you don’t get that benefit because you can’t have a spouse, then you violate equal protection,” Upton said.  “We’ll know in November whether [the Supreme Court is] going to take that case.”

Upton said any opinion Sen. Patrick receives from Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office would be advisory in nature. However, Upton said he suspects that the AG’s office — which has intervened in recent years to block gay divorces — could find a way of bringing a legal challenge to DP benefits in Texas. Upton said he doesn’t like the LGBT community’s chances in front of the conservative Texas Supreme Court, which could ultimately be charged with interpreting whether the marriage amendment bans DP benefits. But Upton said that from a legal standpoint, he’s less worried about the issue than he once was.

“I think the [U.S.] Supreme Court in Diaz could decide it once and for all,” he said. “The bottom line is this whole thing is so much farther long than it was three or four or five years ago. Time is on our side.”

Read Patrick’s press release and his letter seeking an opinion from the AG’s office below.

—  John Wright

Republican commissioners speak out against domestic partner benefits

LGBT activist C.d. Kirven addresses the Dallas County Commissioners Court about the importance of offering domestic partner benefits Tuesday morning. (Anna Waugh/Dallas Voice)

The two Republican members of the Dallas County Commissioners Court said they oppose a plan to offer domestic partner benefits to county employees on Tuesday, citing the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

After the Commissioners Court was briefed on the plan, several speakers highlighted the issue of equality and the county’s need to be competitive to recruit and retain quality employees. The speakers were Cece Cox with Resource Center Dallas, Omar Narvaez with Lambda Legal, Travis Gasper with Equality Texas and C.d. Kirven with GetEQUAL TX.

Republican Commissioner Mike Cantrell then read a statement into the record, calling the plan part of a political agenda. He said the county should not offer the benefits because the federal and state government don’t recognize domestic partners.

“The county is an arm of the state government and as an elected official, my duties are bound to conform with legislation that dictates and defines what determines a legal union,” he said.

—  Anna Waugh