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Wisconsin governor: provide state partner health benefits

Before the fall election, the good folks working against the marriage amendment at Fair Wisconsin were hopeful that it could be defeated. It was a shock to many when the amendment easily passed, 59%-41%. It was a clear signal that the appeal to “fairness” for gay and lesbian couples to straight voters wouldn’t resonate.

It’s clear that the potential effect on Wisconsin’s economy and reputation by institutionalizing discrimination didn’t occur to voters (civil unions and, domestic partnerships were deep-sixed in the amendment as well) . They were happy to cast their ballot on the civil rights of a group of its citizens, impact be damned.

According to The Capital Times (Madison), the University of Wisconsin is the only university in the Big 10 without domestic partner benefits. This has led high-profile professors to leave and prospects to decline because of the absence of those benefits.

To try to stop the bleeding, Governor Jim Doyle will submit a budget with a proposal to offer group health insurance to the partners of all state employees. He tried this two years ago, but the GOP-controlled legislature turned it away.

In a statement, Doyle noted that such benefits have become commonplace in other states as well as for many of Wisconsin’s largest private employers, including Lands’ End, SC Johnson, Miller Brewing, Oscar Mayer and American Family Insurance.

“They do it because it helps them recruit and retain employees who will add value to their businesses,” he said.

“Including this benefit will help ensure that state government agencies and the University of Wisconsin System can continue to attract the best and brightest into public service,” Doyle said.

Now that voters have made it very difficult to move equality forward, will this state legislature recognize the importance of taking this step? BTW, the Senate is now Dem controlled, and the state Assembly has a narrower GOP majority after the 2006 election.

Josh Freker, interim director for Fair Wisconsin, a gay rights organization, said the governor’s proposal is about “fairness” and “competitiveness.”

“It serves the interest of our state, by keeping us competitive, but also makes sure lesbian and gay employees are treated equally,” Freker said.

Freker noted that, when it comes to same-sex marriage, there is clearly a partisan divide in the state Legislature. But, he added, “we have consistently seen where Republican lawmakers say they don’t support discrimination and do want to see some level of civil unions, and I think this will be an important test to see if that’s true.”

It’s sad that at this point, fighting for basic benefits is now the battle in the shadow of these amendments. Only so much can be done once Pandora’s Box has been opened and civil rights are up for a vote of such permanence when a constitution is amended. It is not going to be one legal conflict after another as holes are found and unintended consequences flare. All because gay and lesbian couples dared to ask to be  treated equally under the law.

Quite frankly, part of me wants to see states like Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, Wisconsin — all of which passed amendments that also ban civil unions or DPs — to feel some economic pain. It’s clear that it’s the only message these people understand, outside of measures that end up roping in straight folks in hindsight, such as the problem in Ohio where challenges to domestic violence laws because of its amendment are affecting straight unmarried couples (the Ohio Supreme Court is now debating the issue).

* Fair Wisconsin’s feature, 20 Effects of the Civil Unions and Marriage Ban.
* Wisconsin governor seeks to undo damage from ban on civil unions
* Madison, Wisconsin strikes at marriage amendment with oath proposal

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding