This year, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins followed through on his mission to offer domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian county employees.
Jenkins started the process last year, but a budget shortfall failed to make them a reality.
Jenkins presented his plan to the Public Employee Benefits Cooperative, a self-insured government partner agency that helps keep the cost of benefits affordable. Despite having a majority in favor from members representing Dallas, Tarrant, Denton and Parker counties, and the North Texas Tollway Authority, representatives from Tarrant and Denton counties threatened a veto.
As founding members of the PEBC, counties have the power to veto new benefits or eligibility changes, which require a board vote to go into effect.
The board voted down offering DP benefits last year by one vote.
After the PEBC route proved unsuccessful again in August, Jenkins joined forces with Commissioner Elba Garcia to strategize and create a plan that would provide the benefits outside of the partner agency.
In mid-October, the plan was ready to present to the Commissioners Court. By then, the court’s third Democrat Commissioner John Wiley Price voiced public support for the benefits, giving the court the three votes it needed to pass the plan.
Not surprisingly, Republican Commissioners Mike Cantrell and Maurine Dickey were opposed to the idea, calling it a political strategy and against Texas’ constitutional amendment banning anything similar or identical to marriage.
A notable outburst occurred while LGBT advocates urged the court to pass the plan when Dickey interrupted one speaker to tell a man in the audience to stop taking her picture. Lesbian activist Cd Kirven was the person she was referring to. Kirven corrected Dickey, telling her she was a female and was taking pictures of her friend addressing the court. Dickey continued to refer to Kirven as male, even after Commissioner John Wiley Price corrected her as well.
The benefits passed 3-2 on party lines, making Dallas County the third county in Texas to offer the benefits after Travis and El Paso counties.
The plan goes into effect Jan. 1 and offers county employees a subsidy if they have opposite- or same-sex domestic partners who do not have insurance through other means. 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.
LGBT advocates praised the outcome and the determination of Jenkins and Garcia for finding a way to offer the benefits, which many doubted was possible.
But just as much strategizing followed that praise because the coverage is still not equal. And gay employees will be taxed on the subsidy because the federal government doesn’t recognize same-sex spouses.
Other issues were raised about the cost of purchasing a private insurance plan, even with the subsidy to help with the expense.
Jenkins plans to pursue other options next year for more equal benefits, including voting to leave the PEBC in order to find an insurance provider that offers DP benefits.
While leaving the PEBC seems to be the best option for full equal coverage, domestic partner benefits may be challenged in the coming months.
Shortly after Dallas County approved the benefits, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, sought an opinion on them from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and whether they violated the state’s constitutional amendment.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 28, 2012.