State benefits for same-sex couples advance at Capitol

Hearing room
Legislative committees are dealing with a fair number of social-issues this year. In addition to a bill granting insurance benefits to same-sex state employee couples, Other bills that have been introduced this session give gay couples the same legal protections as married, heterosexual couples, the Legislature is considering bills dealing with hospital visitation rights and the ability to take sick leave to care for a sick partner.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, state lawmakers were considering a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. This year, Democrats now control both the House and Senate, and the push is on to give same-sex couples the same state employee benefits that married, heterosexual couples receive.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, is the chief author of a bill that requires the state to offer same-sex domestic partner benefits.

Scott Cooper
Scott Cooper, with the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, says his group doesn't intend to challenge the law banning same-sex marriage.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"I'm just here with a proposal to treat our gay and lesbian employees equally so that their partners can also have access to health insurance that our heterosexual couples have access to," she said.

Pappas testified before the Senate State Government Budget Division, which approved the bill on a 6-to-3 vote.

If the measure becomes law, Minnesota would become the 14th to state to offer benefits to same-sex couples. It wouldn't be the first time state employees enjoyed same-sex benefits. Former Gov. Jesse Ventura's administration offered them for six months. The Legislature later voted to remove the benefits from the state employee contracts.

At that time, 85 state employees took the benefits and subsequently lost them.

"Just being bounced around like that is difficult," said Lori Lippert, who works in the Department of Human Services, and was one of those employees. "But it was also very demoralizing because I just felt on that day when they took it away from us that I was being told that my work was less valuable than the person I sit next to just because of who I go home to at the end of the day."

Lippert says she and her partner have been together for 25 years. She argues that she should be given the same benefits that many gay couples already get in the private sector.

Another bill would allow local units of government to offer domestic partner benefits if they choose to do so. The Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in 1995 that cities lack the authority to offer the benefits.

Critics worry that these types of bills will chip away at traditional heterosexual marriage.

"Here we have a direct, in our view, attack on the public policy underlying our marriage law," said Tom Prichard, the executive director of the Minnesota Family Council, which has been lobbying the Legislature for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Prichard says he doesn't have the votes to get the proposed amendment passed this year. Instead, he's concerned that legislative action on domestic partner benefits could lead to a court challenge and a potential reversal of a state law that outlaws gay marriage.

"When you redefine marriage away from the man and a woman relationship through same sex marriage, you further destabilize marriage as an institution because no longer can you talk about it as a man and a woman and I think it will weaken it," according to Prichard.

Scott Cooper, with the gay rights group OutFront Minnesota, says his group doesn't intend to challenge the law banning same-sex marriage.

"If they're saying 'it's a slippery slope,' that's really not true. Each one of these steps can be considered individually by the Legislature on its merits and they should make a decision based on that; not based on fear that might happen a long time down the road," he said.

Gov. Pawlenty's spokesman, Brian McClung says Pawlenty will veto both of the bills if they reach his desk. He says Democrats are now pushing social issues legislation that they didn't want to debate last year.

"In the past, when Republicans would bring these up, they would be decried as something that was outside of the scope of what the Legislature should be dealing with. And now Democrats are bringing those things up and where is the cry of 'let's get back and focus on the things that really matter and are really important to the future of the state,'" he said.

It's unlikely that lawmakers would be able to overturn a veto.

Other bills that have been introduced this session give gay couples the same legal protections as married, heterosexual couples. They include hospital visitation rights and the ability to take sick leave to care for a sick partner. Those bills have yet to be heard in committee.

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