Dallas County judge says officials from Denton, Tarrant threatened to veto eligibility for same-sex partners at recent meeting of regional agency

Clay Jenkins

ANNA WAUGH  |  Staff Writer
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Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins says disagreements at a recent Public Employee Benefits Cooperative meeting won’t deter him in his quest to offer domestic partner benefits to county employees in 2013.

PEBC, a self-insured government partner agency that helps keep the cost of benefits affordable, is made up of Dallas, Tarrant, Denton and Parker counties, as well as the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Although the PEBC board had a majority in favor of allowing Dallas County to provide the benefits, Jenkins said representatives with Tarrant and Denton counties threatened a veto. As founding members of the PEBC, Dallas, Tarrant and Denton counties have the power to veto new benefits or eligibility changes, which require a board vote to go into effect.

The PEBC board voted down allowing its members to offer DP benefits by one vote last year, Jenkins said.

But this year, he hoped the PEBC would approve them so he could have the Dallas County Commissioners Court, which he chairs, vote on DP benefits before finalizing the budget in late September. The Court has a 3-2 Democratic majority.

The veto threat, however, prevented a vote by the PEBC board because it would waste time and possibly harm Dallas County’s position as a member of the agency. Jenkins said a vote in the near future is unlikely.

Instead, Jenkins is working to find a way around asking for the PEBC’s permission.

Jenkins said the plan is to offer the benefits outside of the PEBC because it’s too short notice to find another company with open enrollment coming up soon.

“Because of roadblocks at the PEBC, we are currently looking at options to provide domestic partner benefits for our employees but will have to go outside the PEBC,” Jenkins said. “If we do it through an outside company and not through the PEBC, they can’t veto it. If we can’t win the vote, we’ll win this way.”

District 4 County Commissioner Elba Garcia was appointed by Jenkins to the PEBC this year and is helping Jenkins draft a plan to still offer DP benefits. She said finding a way to offer them outside of the agency would be difficult because of cost and making sure the same benefits that are offered through the PEBC will be offered to the partners of county employees who will use DP benefits outside of the PEBC.

Garcia served on the Dallas City Council from 2001-09, voting in favor of the city’s nondiscrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

She also helped the city pass DP benefits and plans to help the county pass them as well.

“It’s like the Lord put me there to pass it in the Dallas City Council and to pass it in the Commissioners Court,” she said.

Rafael McDonnell, communications and advocacy manager for Resource Center Dallas, said the county has invested a lot of time and effort into trying to secure DP benefits, realizing that the cost is minimal and voting for equality is the better option.

“I’m certainly disappointed in the other counties interfering in what Dallas County wants to do,” he said.

The other counties do not have LGBT protections in place in their nondiscrimination policies, so he said those officials wouldn’t understand protecting LGBT citizens on a basic level. He said citizens of those counties should contact their officials to voice their opinion on how they should vote when making a decision that will affect their future benefits options.

Jenkins said he was disappointed in not being able to go through the PEBC for the approval to provide DP benefits but that he was determined to find a way to still offer them as soon as possible.

“To me, domestic partner benefits are fundamentally about equal rights and equal benefits for all of our employees, and so that is something that we absolutely have to push forward,” Jenkins said.

“As far as I’m concerned, we will find a way to have domestic partner benefits.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 31, 2012.