State House panel gives initial OK to same-sex domestic partner benefits

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent)

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. (Photo/Bob Spencer, The Colorado Independent)

A Colorado House committee voted Tuesday afternoon to approve a bill that would extend health insurance benefits to same-sex domestic partners of state employees.

The bill, which has already passed the state Senate, advanced on a party-line vote after testimony from opponents, who said the measure unfairly extends special rights to gay couples and defies the will of state voters, who passed an amendment banning gay marriage in 2006. Supporters called it the right thing to do and said the benefits to the state outweigh anticipated costs.

“It’s about fairness,” said Senate Bill 88 co-sponsor Rep. Mark Ferrandino, a Denver Democrat and the only openly gay member of the Legislature. “It’s about making sure we treat our employees equal no matter their sexual orientation.”

During debate on the bill two weeks ago on the Senate floor, Greeley Republican state Sen. Scott Renfroe provoked a firestorm when he compared homosexuality to murder and quoted Scripture that said gay men should be put to death. Renfroe’s remarks won the rebuke of religious leaders, gay rights groups and even prominent conservatives, though the Senate Republican leadership stayed quiet on the controversy. Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry said he wasn’t going to “muzzle” GOP legislators after another state senator, Colorado Springs Republican Dave Schultheis, said he would vote against another bill because mandatory HIV testing for pregnant women would blunt the “negative consequences” of “promiscuous behavior.”

The testimony Tuesday before the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee was less contentious. Most of the back-and-forth was over the accuracy of budget estimates putting the cost of the bill at $116,000 next year, based on an assumption that two-tenths of one percent of state employees would add domestic partners to their coverage.

Rep. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican who eventually voted against the bill, repeatedly questioned whether the cost could be five times as high as state estimates based on projections used by Colorado cities that offer the coverage. The City of Aurora, for instance, estimated a full one percent of employees would share coverage with same-sex partners when its City Council voted to extend the benefit last month.

Ferrandino said state fiscal analysts “did their best,” basing estimates on the number of University of Colorado employees who share the benefits with domestic partners.

“While there may be a cost to the state to provide this coverage, the cost of being uninsured always outweighs the cost of being insured,” said Jacqueline Kilmer, vice president of the Colorado AIDS Project, who testified in favor of the bill.

Opponents to the bill said the proposal would grant rights to gay unmarried couples that straight couples don’t have, while at the same time reminding legislators that the state constitution bans gay couples from wedlock.

“At this time, it should not be an option to discriminate against non-same-sex partners,” said Jessica Langfeldt, representing the Focus on the Family spin-off Colorado Family Action. The religious groups ran an advertising campaign against Senate Bill 88 last month arguing Colorado simply can’t afford to expand benefits when the state faces a fiscal crisis.

Under the proposal, partners of state employees who swear they’ve been in a committed relationship for at least a year would be eligible to share benefits.

The bill moves on to the House Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

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Ernest Luning

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