Bexar County Commissioners Court extends benefits to same-sex partners

Bexar County commissioners

The Bexar County Commissioners Court

The Bexar County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to extend health benefits to county employees’ same-sex spouses.

The “plus-one” plan allows an employee to add an additional adult to their health plans, Equality Texas announced. The plan is similar to ones passed by Austin Independent School District and offered by other municipalities and agencies like Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

Bexar County is the fourth county in Texas to offer the benefits after Travis County, Dallas County and El Paso County.

After Attorney General Greg Abbott’s opinion last year that DP benefits violate the state’s constitutional marriage amendment, municipalities and agencies have refereed to DP benefits as “plus one” plans, even though the opinion isn’t legally binding. And El Paso County changed its benefits plan last year to remove domestic partner language.

But a Houston lawsuit challenging same-sex spousal benefits is contesting offering benefits to same-sex couples with the state’s marriage amendment. The suit was filed after Mayor Annise Parker announced that spousal benefits would be extended to all legally married city employees in same-sex marriages.

To sign Equality Texas’ thank you letter to the Bexar County commissioners, go here.

—  Anna Waugh

Republican Houston judge blocks city’s partner benefits until Jan. hearing

State District Judge Lisa Millard

State District Judge Lisa Millard

State District Judge Lisa Millard signed a temporary restraining order Tuesday prohibiting the city of Houston from offering partner benefits to same-sex couples after the Harris County GOP chairman filed a lawsuit.

Out Mayor Annise Parker announced that health benefits would be offered to legally married same-sex couples for city employees last month in light of June’s DOMA ruling.

“This is one of the most egregious acts by an elected official I’ve ever seen,” said Jared Woodfill, chairman the Harris County Republican party. “They just decided to, unilaterally, as a lame duck, thumb their nose at the will of the people and just spit on the U.S. Constitution.”

The lawsuit alleges that Parker violated the city’s charter when she extended the benefits for same-sex couples, the state Defense of Marriage Act and the Texas constitutional marriage amendment.

But attorneys for the city told the Houston Chronicle that the lawsuit will likely be thrown out because the men who filed it likely don’t have legal standing.

The Houston GLBT Political Caucus issued a statement late Tuesday.

“The Harris County GOP doesn’t care how many hundreds of thousands of taxpayers dollars are wasted on this frivolous lawsuit,” Caucus President Noel Freeman said.  “Heading into an election year, this isn’t about marriage or taxpayer funding of benefits, it’s about turning out social conservative voters.”

So far only three city employees have added same-sex spouses to their benefits, including Freeman, but now that coverage will be on hold. And if the spouses received care since the benefits went into effect on Nov. 20, they may have to pay for the entire cost.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that simply being a taxpayer does not grant standing to sue elected officials.” Freeman said.  “We believe this case will ultimately be dismissed for a lack of standing in accordance with established case law.”

A hearing is set for Jan. 6.

—  Anna Waugh

El Paso rejects demand for $10,000 by anti-gay hate group

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Tom Brown

Tom Brown Ministries demanded $10,000 from the city of El Paso to settle a lawsuit it initiated over city domestic partner benefits. The city council rejected the demands from the organization labeled an anti-gay hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In 2011, Brown began a recall petition against Mayor John Cook and two city council members who voted to reinstate domestic partner benefits. The benefits were approved in 2009 and repealed in an election in 2010 before being reinstated in 2011. The recall election cost five times what the benefits cost the city.

A lower court threw out the recall and the Texas Supreme Court refused to hear the case.

Complaints against Brown’s ministry were filed with the IRS in 2011 for illegally using his church’s nonprofit status for political purposes.

—  David Taffet

DART passes partner health benefits

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Members of the LGBT community gathered outside the DART board room after passage of the plus-one plan

After debating the issue for more than a year, DART passed what it called its Healthcare Equalization plan that gives its employees domestic partner benefits this evening. The vote was 10-3. Michael Cheney and Randall Chrisman, who walked out of the board to break quorum two weeks ago, voted against the plan along with Mark Enoch.

The so-called plus-one plan allows any DART employee to put another adult in the household on the DART healthcare plan.

A number of speakers addressed the DART board at the end of the meeting. Rather than asking for their votes as they have for more than a year, speakers thanked the members for voting for the plan.

More on DART in Friday’s Dallas Voice.

—  David Taffet

LGBT residents address Garland City Council on DART, nondiscrimination

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Garland Mayor Douglas Athas, left, Lerone Landis, Patti Fink and Rafael McDonnell

Following the walkout by Garland DART board representative Michael Cheney on Sept. 24 before a vote on healthcare benefits for same-sex partners at the transit agency, LGBT Garland residents and other area activists attended a Garland City Council meeting Wednesday night.

Two Garland residents and Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance President Patti Fink addressed the council. After the meeting concluded, Mayor Douglas Athas and two councilmen spoke to the group in the council chambers.

Lerone Landis told the council he lives in Garland with his husband and their 4-year-old daughter. He said he was a daily DART rider and was disappointed to learn that it was Garland’s representative who prevented the healthcare equalization plan to pass.

To show its commitment to diversity, he urged the Garland City Council to pass a nondiscrimination policy for its own employees and for city residents.

Carmarion Anderson said she was embarrassed to be a Garland resident after Cheney’s stunt at the DART meeting.

“We live here and pay our taxes here,” she said.

She said she expected equal treatment for herself and for DART’s LGBT employees.

Fink called Cheney’s action at the DART meeting “shameful.” She encouraged the council to pass an ordinance that would cover city employees.

“Be on the cutting edge and bring new business to the city,” Fink said.

The practice at the council is to not address speakers directly as they make their allotted three-minute presentations. However, the three statements were made at the end of the meeting and the mayor came to introduce himself and talk to the group afterward.

Resource Center spokesman Rafael McDonnell, who was also at the meeting, spoke to the mayor earlier in the day about the issues.

He said he believed the opposition to the DART healthcare plan among Garland officials is not rooted in homophobia but in the city’s fiscal conservatism. Athas agreed it was unfair for DART to be covering unmarried heterosexual partners and not same-sex partners.

“The council was certainly aware of Mr. Cheney’s actions,” McDonnell said.

Athas told Dallas Voice last week that he spoke to Cheney and was opposed to the DART plan. Athas’ opposition to the plus-one plan is that it’s open to abuse because the plan could cover nieces, nephews or anyone else and the agency had no way to monitor it.

But Athas said Wednesday night that the city would consider the idea of a nondiscrimination ordinance.

“We have a lot of lesbian and gay employees,” he said. “We would never allow that sort of discrimination.”

He said he had never heard a request from any of the city’s lesbian and gay community for a nondiscrimination ordinance. But he called the ordinance “nothing to rush into because no one’s come forward” with a complaint.

Fink told the mayor that most Fortune 500 companies have a nondiscrimination policy and look to relocate in cities that have similar policies. She said that the city may not have received any complaints, but  many people looking for work may have skipped applying in Garland because they have no protections.

McDonnell said he received an email from Athas Thursday morning, telling him the next step is to have Human Resources look over Garland’s nondiscrimination policies.

The mayor called the city extremely fiscally conservative. McDonnell said an ordinance is a good way for a city to avoid a discrimination lawsuit.

—  David Taffet

Exxon to begin offering health benefits to same-sex married couples

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Rex Tillerson

Exxon announced today it will begin offering health benefits to employees who are legally married as of Jan. 1.

Resource Center has met with Exxon’s vice president of human resources and the agency was told they weren’t going to be pushed into offering benefits by a bunch of gay-rights activists.

In addition to the center CEO Cece Cox, those “activists” included executives from Texas Instruments, AT&T and Bank of America who talked with Exxon executives about how their companies implemented partner benefits.

Another of those gay-rights activists they wouldn’t be pushed around by was New York Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli who has filed shareholder resolutions the past few years to have the company add benefits. The resolutions have been defeated. This year he threatened to file a lawsuit against the company for violating New York law.

ExxonMobil’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, was also president of the Boy Scouts of America.

 

—  David Taffet

UPDATE: DART delays vote on DP benefits until October

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UPDATE: Two board members — Cheney and Chrisman — walked out of the DART board meeting tonight before a scheduled vote on a domestic partner healthcare equalization plan, breaking quorum.

One of the board members was coaxed back into the meeting to vote on other agenda items and pass the annual DART budget that includes the expected cost of the added healthcare benefits.

But he walked again as the item came up at the end of the meeting. It was tabled until the next meeting. If it passes at that time, it may delay benefits for another year because the signup period begins Oct. 1.

ORIGINAL POST: The DART committee-of-the-whole passed its version of domestic partner benefits on a voice vote of 9–2 this afternoon. The entire DART board, made up of the same members, must vote on it again tonight for final passage.

DART has been discussing DP benefits since July 2012.

Resource Center spokesman Rafael McDonnell attended the meeting — the 19th DART meeting he’s attended at which the issue was discussed.

“I’m pleased we’re finally at this point,” he said. “A part of me never thought we’d get here.”

He noted he’s spent more time on DART DP benefits than any other issue he’s worked on at Resource Center.

The no votes came from the same representatives that voted no and abstained on the issue two weeks ago. Michael Cheney, who represents Garland, called for a roll call vote. As he voted, he said he voted no after consulting with city officials in Garland.

Garland doesn’t have a nondiscrimination ordinance or protection for its LGBT city employees — yet.

The DART board meeting for final approval is tonight at 6 p.m. A number of members of the community are scheduled to speak, including the partner of a DART employee who can’t work for health reasons and contacted the agency about being added to his husband’s policy.

—  David Taffet

DART board members approve DP benefits plan in 1st of 3 votes

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Mike Muhammad

DART’s board, acting as a committee-of-the-whole, passed a domestic partner benefits plan this evening that must be passed twice more in two weeks — once more by the committee and then by the DART board. The proposal passed the Administrative Committee two weeks ago.

Cost was again an issue at today’s meeting. Mike Muhammad, DART’s vice president of diversity and innovative services, reported that in Pflugerville, where the school district began offering DP benefits last year, only two employees have taken advantage of the plan. He said the numbers in Fort Worth, and at Parkland hospital and DFW Airport have been similar.

Using national averages of employees who participate in DP benefits plans, Muhammad said he expects 11 or 12 of DART’s employees to take advantage of the plan, costing the agency a total of $70,000 annually including dental benefits.

To avoid a challenge by Attorney General Greg Abbott, who could claim domestic partnerships are not legal in Texas, DART is proposing offering a plus-one plan. Under the plus-0ne plan, an unmarried adult DART employee could cover one unrelated adult in the household. The unrelated adult must not be eligible for coverage by his or her own employer and not be eligible for government coverage. The unrelated adult must live with the DART employee and they must prove they’ve lived together for at least one year.

Although Muhammad gave the same presentation he made two weeks ago, board members were still confused about who could be covered. One asked why DART should cover any roommate. Another questioned whether DART has considered dropping heterosexual spouses who could get coverage elsewhere from the agency’s plan. A third wondered if DART would start covering the spouses of employees in common-law marriages (it already does).

DART board chair John Danish tried to explain why the agency was using the plus-one plan rather than domestic partnerships. He said they were balancing two Supreme Court rulings recognizing same-sex marriage with an attorney general’s opinion that doesn’t.

When board members continued to have questions, they went into executive session for an hour.

After they returned to open session, the vote for the plan was eight in favor, on against and one abstention.

The plan must be voted by the committee again on Sept. 24. If it passes its second committee vote in the afternoon, the board will vote again that evening. The committee-of-the-whole and the board are made up of the same members.

—  David Taffet

BREAKING: IRS rules same-sex couples can file as married

TreasuryThe IRS ruled Friday that all legally married same-sex couples will be treated as married for federal tax purposes no in matter which state they reside. The ruling applies to income, estate and gift tax. The ruling also affects the earned income tax credit or child tax credit.

Domestic partnerships from states such as Nevada or Oregon or civil unions from states such as Hawaii, New Jersey or Colorado are not considered marriages for federal purposes.

Marriage from other countries such as Canada are recognized by the federal government.

Couples will be able to file a 1040X to amend previous returns up to three years. Married couples that paid tax on domestic partner benefits are entitled to refunds. Some couples will be eligible for a refund if they refile with one spouse claiming the other as a dependent.

Legally married couples will file as “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately.”

—  David Taffet

Member put on DART board by LGBT allies won’t take stance on DP benefits

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LGBT advocates at the DART board meeting.

Four LGBT advocates spoke at a DART board meeting on Tuesday evening to encourage the agency to offer domestic partner benefits, but discussion of the topic was delayed until August. And a new DART board member refused to say whether she supported DP benefits.

Amanda Moreno Cross was nominated for the DART board by Councilwomen Monica Alonzo, Pauline Medrano and Delia Jasso. After the meeting, Cross said it was her first meeting and declined to comment on whether she supports equal benefits for the transit authority’s employees.

Transgender activist Pam Curry addressed the board wearing a sign that read: “I was born gay. Were you born hateful?”

“Once again, you have put off DP benefits,” she told the board. “Even our federal employees and military get benefits.”

—  David Taffet