Critics say proposal would conflict with voter-approved anti-gay-marriage amendment
MADISON, Wis. — Same-sex couples could form domestic partnerships and receive dozens of the same legal benefits as married people under a proposal by Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle.
Supporters say it’s a step forward for gay and lesbian couples who would get the right to visit one another in hospitals, make each other’s end-of-life decisions and inherit their partner’s homes and cars.
But critics question whether the plan, which Doyle included in his two-year state budget proposal, conflicts with a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. One conservative group promised a lawsuit if it is approved.
Wisconsin would become the ninth state to offer same-sex couples protections through domestic partnerships or civil unions, according to gay rights groups. Two states allow gay marriage, while Wisconsin and 28 others have constitutional amendments banning it.
Researchers estimated 1,400 to 5,000 same-sex couples would register their relationships at county clerks offices in the first year. That’s based on other states’ experiences and U.S. Census Bureau data showing about 14,000 same-sex couples in Wisconsin.
Along with the inheritance and hospital protections, partners would qualify for medical leave from work to care for each other and not have to testify against each other in court.
State and local government employees would be able to add partners and dependent children to their health insurance coverage. Surviving partners would receive the same state retirement and workers compensation benefits as spouses.
"For us, it would mean a lot," said Oshkosh resident Aaron Sherer, 35, who has been in a relationship with another man for 10 years and has two adopted and foster children. "This would give us some piece of mind that should a crisis occur in our family, we’ll be able to take care of each other and make decisions."
Wisconsin’s gay marriage ban, approved by 59 percent of voters in 2006, also prohibits the state from recognizing same-sex relationships "substantially similar" to marriage.
Doyle’s plan would not withstand a legal challenge because of that clause, said Julaine Appling, president of the conservative Wisconsin Family Action. She noted that unmarried straight couples would not qualify for the partnerships.
"This is creating a marriage-like relationship," she said. "If they are going to proceed with this, this is going to be settled in court."
Sherer was legally married to his partner in Massachusetts last year but that relationship is not recognized in Wisconsin (and would not be under Doyle’s plan). He said critics of the plan "clearly don’t understand what marriage provides."
"We’re talking about a limited set of the most critical protections that committed couples should be able to have," said Katie Belanger, legislative director of the gay rights group Fair Wisconsin.
Republican lawmakers who championed the amendment said they added the "substantially similar" clause to ban Vermont-style civil unions in which same-sex couples enjoy the same rights as married ones. One of them, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald of Juneau, said the courts would have to decide whether Doyle’s plan meets that standard.
Doyle, a Democrat, said the plan is far short of marriage because of its limited scope and would survive any challenge.
The plan gives same-sex couples 43 legal benefits, but married couples currently enjoy more than 200 in Wisconsin, including joint tax filing and qualifying for veterans benefits. Spouses also qualify for more than 1,000 benefits under federal law, including Social Security benefits, that domestic partners would not.
Shortly before she left office, then-Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager issued a legal opinion in 2006 that the marriage ban would not outlaw limited domestic partnerships.
Lautenschlager, a Democrat, opposed the amendment. Her successor, GOP Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, supports it. His spokesman, Bill Cosh, said his office hasn’t yet reviewed the legality of Doyle’s plan.
The governor received a standing ovation from legislative Democrats when he outlined the plan in his budget address Feb. 17. He said the plan "takes some basic steps toward fairness and decency" and would help the state attract and retain talented workers.
The University of Wisconsin-Madison has lost some faculty members to other universities and failed to recruit others because it is the only Big 10 school without health benefits for domestic partners.
With support from Democrats who control the Legislature, the plan is expected to win approval in coming months.
Opponents, meanwhile, are questioning how much it will cost taxpayers and companies who will be forced to provide medical leave. No cost estimate for Doyle’s plan was available. Legislative analysts estimated in 2007 that providing health insurance for partners of state employees would cost at least $7 million per year.
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