February 16, 2007

Kentucky Senate Committee votes to ban domestic-partner benefits across the commonwealth.

Universities and other public agencies should not be allowed to offer health benefits to unmarried domestic partners of employees, a Senate committee said yesterday in approving a bill its sponsor said was not gay bashing.

Senator Vernie McGaha, R-Russell Springs, said his Senate Bill 152 is needed to "clear up confusion" in state public agencies' health insurance plans.

The bill would require public agencies to allow their employees to select health insurance coverage only for themselves and family members. It defines public agencies as any participating in a state retirement system or health insurance plan or subject to state laws on higher education.

The University of Louisville approved the benefits last year. The University of Kentucky is considering the move.

In a statement yesterday, UK President Lee Todd said UK "is opposed to any legislation that limits the university's ability to make determinations regarding the relationship with its employees."

University of Louisville President Jim Ramsey spoke against the bill in testifying before the Senate committee.

The policy at the university does not cost the state any tax dollars since the employee has to pay the premiums for others, Ramsey said. "We at the university embrace diversity and tolerance."

Ramsey said the place to stop the bill probably will be in the House, where Democrats are in the majority. The Senate is controlled by Republicans.

David Edmunds, policy analyst for The Family Foundation in Lexington, testified before the committee in support of McGaha's bill.

"The question of domestic partners is actually a debate about marriage," said Edmunds, noting that 75 percent of Kentucky voters in 2004 approved a constitutional amendment that prohibits same-sex marriage.

"That amendment said, 'A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized.'" Edmunds said.

McGaha said the bill was "in no way" an attempt to harm gays.

Kentucky Equality Federation President Jordan Palmer quickly condemned the vote.

"Corporations across the nation continue to surpass our commonwealth in extending domestic partner benefits to same-sex couples. This is homophobia in its simplest form; bigotry that seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, deny their humanity, happiness, health, civil, and God given rights. If this isn't challenged by all Kentuckians we are giving our government the green light to victimize other minority groups." Palmer said.

Governor Ernie Fletcher said earlier in the day that he thinks it is the responsibility of the board of trustees at each one of the universities to make those decisions.

"We'll have to wait and see what the legislature does, and I will be taking a look at it at that point."

Eight members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee voted for the bill. Two Democrats -- Walter Blevins of West Liberty and Julian Carroll of Frankfort -- did not vote.

The bill now goes to the Senate for its consideration.

House Speaker Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said, "Generally, we do not micromanage universities."

House Judiciary Chairwoman Kathy Stein, D-Lexington, called McGaha's bill "short-sighted and wrong."

"We have no business trying to micromanage the affairs of our state universities," she said. "Once again, we are trying to gain political popularity by beating up on a group of folks who are fine contributing citizens of the commonwealth."

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