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Michigan extends benefits to unmarried partners

In a three to one vote, the Michigan Civil Service Commission on Wednesday approved a controversial measure to extend healthcare benefits to state employees’ unmarried partners and their dependents.

The move was made to fulfill a contract provision negotiated in 2004 by the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm. That November, however, Michigan voters approved an amendment to the state’s Constitution which limited marriage to a union between one man and one woman and prohibited recognizing any other sort of union. The original agreement with Granholm’s administration and 70 percent of the state employee’s unions was originally designed to extend benefits to unmarried same-sex partners of state employees.

That was challenged and in 2008, the state Supreme Court held that benefits could not be extended only to same-sex partners. As a result, several state universities and municipalities developed a program to offer benefits or same-sex and opposite sex partners who were not married. The program was called Other Eligible Individuals.

But the fact that the benefit had been negotiated in good faith between Granholm’s Office of the State Employer and unions, did not prevent Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointee to that post, Jan Winters, from challenging the move.

“We’ve very concerned, because something that costs millions of dollars is something the state of Michigan cannot afford right now,” Winters told the commission, citing a projected $1.8 billion deficit for the next fiscal year. “If we spend the additional money, we’re going to have to figure out where it’s coming from.”

Winters concerns were echoed by State Rep. Chuck Moss (R-Birmingham), the House Chair of the Appropriations Committee.

“This fiscally irresponsible move not only adds unnecessary costs to our hard-pressed budget, but opens the door to nearly limitless liability. It’s writing a blank check to an already overdrawn account to push an agenda rejected by Michigan voters,” Moss said in a press release. “Adding additional costs to an already massive budget deficit is immensely irresponsible and reckless, and will result in additional funding cuts elsewhere. The move also is ripe for fraud, which will further increase costs to Michigan taxpayers. There is no way imaginable that the state can ever properly verify whether someone is truly living with a state employee. Given that people across Michigan are paying more for health care or getting services reduced, the idea of giving state workers even more health care benefits is disgraceful. It represents a complete lack of understanding about the financial reality we find ourselves in.”

But in the City of East Lansing, which met in December to consider extension of health benefits to its employees in the same manner, officials there said a very tiny portion of those eligible for the benefits at Michigan State University had accepted the benefits. In addition to the low number of people who are eligible for the benefits who actually take them, the benefits are also taxed as income, increasing tax rates for the public employee.

David Holtz, executive director of Progress Michigan praised the decision.

“The civil service commission did the right thing, not just for same-sex couples but for our entire state. It makes us a more attractive place to work and live, and we shouldn’t forget that partners will have to pay taxes on those benefits so revenue will be coming into the state,” said Holts. “If the governor is looking for a way to offset the remaining cost, he might want to take a look at closing some of the $39 billion in special interest tax loopholes that subsidize big oil, tobacco sellers and others.”

The American Family Association of Michigan’s Gary Glenn weighed in on the new benefits, echoing the Snyder administration concerns.

“We’re hopeful the governor and legislature will take whatever steps are necessary to prevent Michigan taxpayers from being forced to provide spousal benefits to the homosexual partners of government employees,” Glenn told Michigan Messenger in an email. “It’s wrong from a moral standpoint no matter what the economy, but at a time when the state is facing a billion-dollar deficit, increasing government spending on such a social engineering scheme is simply unthinkable.”

Equality Michigan, however, hailed the decision.

“I understand that some people believe that investing in state employees right now is untimely. However, as a businessperson myself, I know that the MCSC’s decision will ultimately be an economic benefit to Michigan; it will allow us to attract and retain the best and brightest employees to public service in our state,” said Denise Brogan-Kator, interim executive director of the group, which advocates for the LGBT community. “Moreover, this is the correct decision at a time when our state needs to demonstrate that Michigan provides an inclusive environment where businesses can thrive. By providing these benefits the MCSC has corrected an injustice where some employees were treated as second-class citizens because of their partnership status.”

The state has estimated that this benefit will cost $6 million per year, or approximately .003 percent (three one-thousandths of a percent) of this year’s estimated deficit.

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