State law prohibits adding same-sex partners to health plans at flagship institutions, but advocates say that makes Texas less competitive


State Rep. Elliott Naishtat

ANNA WAUGH  |  News Editor

Faculty and staff at the University of Texas at Austin and A&M University are hoping the state Legislature will pass a bill this session to allow the universities to offer domestic partner benefits.

State Rep. Elliott Naishtat, D-Austin, filed HB 1140 in February to provide competitive benefits to employees of the University of Texas and Texas A&M University systems.

Texas law currently mandates that the systems offer health benefits to dependents specified as spouses and children under the Texas Insurance Code. But the Texas Family Code defines spouse as “a husband, who is a man, or a wife, who is a woman,” and specifies that “a member of a civil union or similar relationship … between persons of the same sex is not a spouse.”

Naishtat’s bill would add “qualified individuals” to the dependents category of the insurance code, allowing same-sex partners of employees to be added to their health insurance plans.

This is the third year he’s filed the legislation. In 2009, the bill received a committee hearing but was left pending.

“I was actually surprised it got a hearing,” Naishtat said.

He was hesitant to move forward with the bill this year until he received a call from UT to go ahead and file it. After discussing the bill with UT and A&M faculty, including UT’s President William Powers Jr., he said the support seemed strong. Powers has recently been under scrutiny for raising tuition and pressure to increase enrollment. His office did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.

“I’m certainly not going to suggest the bill will make it to the governor’s desk but there’s more of a chance [this year],” Naishtat said.

Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said the university systems may already have the power to offer the benefits based on how the law — which requires them to be competitive — is interpreted.

“The reality is 23 of the top 25 flagship universities offer competitive benefits. By statute, they should offer them,” Smith said. “There’s an economic cost to the UT and A&M systems because they are at a competitive disadvantage for competing for qualified personnel.”
But Jenny LaCoste-Caputo, a spokeswoman for the UT System Board of Regents, said the current interpretation of the law prevents the system from offering the benefits.

“Whether or not to provide domestic partner benefits is a legislative policy decision,” she said. “Our understanding of current Texas law is that without enactment of new legislation the system is unable to offer these benefits. If legislation is passed, the UT System would honor that decision.”

Smith said more than 400 universities across the nation offer some form of benefits to domestic partners. Five universities offer them in Texas: Southern Methodist University, Baylor College of Medicine, Southwestern University, Rice University and Trinity University. Allowing the UT and A&M systems to offer the benefits would impact employees at nine academic institutions and six health institutions in the UT system, as well as 12 universities in A&M’s system.

Passage of DP benefits legislation could be difficult, especially after a bill was recently introduced by state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, to reduce a school district’s healthcare funding by 7.5 percent if they offer DP benefits to anyone other than an employee or a dependent of an employee. Pflugerville ISD is the only school district that offers the benefits after becoming the first school district in the state to approve them for same- and opposite-sex partners last year.

Legislation opposing DP benefits across the state is anticipated. State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, requested an opinion from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in November on whether offering them defies Texas’ marriage amendment that prohibits anything similar or identical to marriage. Abbott has until

May to issue his opinion. Patrick’s office did not return calls seeking input about Naishtat’s bill or whether he would introduce legislation on DP benefits himself.

Karen Landolt started UT’s Pride and Equity Faculty and Staff Association in 2006 and has been advocating for the legislation ever since.

Although the Legislature has the anti-gay bill filed, targeting DP benefits in school districts, Landolt said the UT group is hoping that even the conservative lawmakers will see the issue as a competitive business strategy to retain the top faculty and staff.

“We’re hoping that this is a more positive environment,” she said. “This does help UT’s competitiveness.”

When Landolt first got involved with the initiative for competitive benefits, her partner was on disability with a chronic condition. While her partner has since gotten better, she wished she’d had the option to put her on her health insurance. Over the years, she’s seen faculty take jobs at other institutions because they offer DP benefits, and she’s had faculty turn down offers to come to UT because the university doesn’t have them.

“We’re well behind the curve on this,” she said, adding that it’s ultimately up to lawmakers. “It’s in the Legislature’s hands.

LaCoste-Caputo said the UT system “doesn’t generally weigh in pro or con on legislation and in fact is barred from lobbying by state law.” However, they can offer information about how legislation would affect institutions, which is what Naishtat expects them to do, so legislators understand how beneficial the legislation could be.

“I would expect representatives from the systems to educate members if need be,” Naishtat said. “The bottom line is we have tenured faculty and experienced staff who leave our flagship universities because of these competitive benefits.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 1, 2013.