Public employee system approves 'partners' coverage

Regulations allowing coverage to both same and opposite-sex domestic partners by the state's benefits program were approved by the Public Employee Benefits Program board Thursday.

The 6-2 vote came after another lengthy debate to send regulations making the change to the Legislative Commission for final approval.

The board had extensive debate over the proposal in previous hearings. The strongest support for the change came from representatives in the university system.

This time, however, the debate focused on the budget shortfall, since covering domestic partners will cost an estimated $2.7 million a year. Executive Director Leslie Johnstone told members the governor's office "on financial grounds, is not in favor of proceeding with these regulations."

Ben Kieckhefer, spokesman for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said the governor won't be augmenting the public employees' benefits budget for that purpose.

That means the program would either have to find the money within its existing budget or ask lawmakers to add extra money.

The regulations will take effect if, at the end of the 2009 Legislature, the PEBP board determines the necessary funding is available.

Chairman Ron Swirczek said including domestic couples meets the letter and intent of the state law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, age and sexual orientation. He suggested the board proceed to approve the regulations and, if there is no funding for it, implement the rules with no subsidy, which would require the couple involved to pay the entire cost.

"I don't think we can recommend funding for a state subsidy at this time but we can move forward to say domestic partners are eligible," he said.

Member Julia Teska objected: "By having the budget in there, the governor and Legislature get the opportunity to weigh in on it. By not including this as a subsidy item in the budget, they don't get to."

Jacque Ewing-Taylor said the board voted to draft regulations making partners eligible and should go forward with the regulations, and debate funding during the group's budget process.

"If we get to the point in September, October and November where we can't afford it, then that's it," she said.

But if they can, she said, then the program is ready to go July 1, 2009.

"In my mind, the regulations (are) somewhat separate from the budget discussion," she said. "The domestic partner issue is one of basic fairness."

Swirczek said he agrees and that he doesn't want to see a situation in which everything is tied to funding.

Randall Kirner, Personnel Director Todd Rich and Teska said they oppose doing the regulations at this time because of the budget.

"Voting yes and sending this forward says we want to increase benefits," said Rich. "I don't think that's the right thing to do at this time."

The other five members present voted for the program, sending the approved regulations to the next Legislative Commission meeting for final action.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.


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