Same-sex benefits poised for Aurora decision after initial state Senate OK

(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)
(Photo/Danny Hammontree, Flickr)
After numerous delays, the Aurora City Council will debate, on Monday, whether to offer insurance benefits to same-sex partners of city employees. This comes just after the Colorado State Senate gave initial approval to a bill that would do the same for state employees. The Colorado Independent will be live-blogging the Aurora decision starting at 7:30 p.m.

Late Monday morning, the Senate passed SB 88 on a voice vote, The Associated Press reports. Some opponents said the bill ran contrary to the will of voters, who voted down a ballot measure in 2006 that would have established domestic partnerships in Colorado, while others echoed a Focus on the Family ad that claims the bill — estimated to cost the state $116,000 the first year — is too expensive in a fiscal crisis.

Republican Sen. Scott Renfroe of Greeley raised more fundamental objections to the bill. According to the AP, “Renfroe said the bill goes against his religious beliefs and that homosexuality is an offense to God. He quoted Bible passages about the creation of Eve as Adam’s helper and about homosexuality.”

The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Jennifer Veiga of Denver, who is the Legislature’s only open lesbian, replied that God made her too. She also told lawmakers the measure won’t put gay and lesbian couples one step closer to walking down the aisle, the Rocky Mountain News reports.

The bill, which passed without amendment through two Senate committees, faces a final vote in the Senate this week and then goes to the House, where the Legislature’s lone openly gay member, Democratic Rep. Mark Ferrandino of Denver, is the other sponsor.

Sen. Joyce Foster, a Denver Democrat, scoffed at the notion SB 88 is “cutting edge” legislation, the Rocky reports. She said she voted to add similar coverage for city employees a decade ago when she was a member of the Denver City Council.

What’s old hat in Denver, however, can still generate plenty of controversy in neighboring Aurora. After several postponements, that city’s council is scheduled to decide Monday night a similar measure adding same-sex domestic partners to the city’s personnel manual, which would grant the same health insurance and other benefits, including the right to take family medical leave, as are currently enjoyed by members of employees’ immediate families.

So far, none of the Aurora council members have mentioned Adam and Eve, but many of the objections are similar to those raised by state lawmakers.

Councilwoman Renie Peterson has said previously that the city, facing a multi-million dollar budget shortfall this year, can’t afford to extend health insurance benefits to domestic partners. The city pegs the cost at $4,500 per employee, or $49,500 based on estimates that 1 percent of employees would seek the coverage.

In a memorandum responding to Peterson after an earlier city council study session, Aurora Human Relations Director Kin Shuman suggested the costs “must be weighted against the potential benefits,” including “placing the city on an equal position with other municipal, county, state and private sector employees in Colorado which currently cover domestic partnerships.” The policy would also help recruit police and firefighters, Shuman wrote.

Another consistent opponent of the proposal, Councilman Bob FitzGerald, said at a city council meeting a month ago that he cannot vote “in any manner” for the change until he gets a go-ahead from Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. FitzGerald said he requested Aurora’s city attorney to inquire whether the definition of same-sex domestic partnership in the proposal is “constitutionally permissible,” based on a state constitutional ban on gay marriage.

He’s unlikely to get clearance from Suthers, the attorney general’s spokesman told the Colorado Independent earlier this month. Nate Strauch wrote in an e-mail:

We never received such a request. Furthermore, cities and counties cannot request opinions of the Attorney General. Only the Governor, Secretary of State, executive departments, and legislative leadership can request opinions.

FitzGerald said at a city council meeting a month ago that he has “substitute language” he would like to propose to keep the city’s personnel policy within state law. Earlier, FitzGerald told the Colorado Independent he was considering proposing a change to allow employees to designate anyone as a “plus one” beneficiary on benefits coverage.

An attorney who serves on the board of Equal Rights Colorado, a gay rights advocacy group, disputed FitzGerald’s contention that the benefits change might run afoul of state law. “If there were any kind of constitutional cloud over this, it would have come up in other places,” Pat Steadman told the Colorado Independent in December. “This isn’t about marriage. No higher ed governing board or city council can change that.”

Steadman pointed to a growing number of Colorado cities and counties adopting coverage for same-sex partners. “I’m aware of no challenge to any existing employee benefits package premised upon that question,” he said, referring to domestic partner benefits in light of Amendment 43, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman. “In fact, just the opposite — the frequency where the incidence of that benefit being offered is spreading.”

At least 20 cities and four counties in Colorado offer the benefit to employees, according to data compiled by the Colorado Municipal League at the request of the Colorado Independent.

Cities offering insurance coverage to same-sex partners of employees: Breckenridge, Denver, Golden, Littleton, Brighton, Boulder, Commerce City, Englewood, Glendale, Lafayette, Lakewood, Northglenn, Central City, Frisco, Gunnison, Brush, Wheat Ridge, Windsor, Aspen, and Durango, which added the benefit in the fall. Counties offering the benefit include Logan County, Boulder County, Pitkin County and Summit County. The Regional Transportation District also offers the coverage.

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