By Ryan Alessi
Lexington, KY -- Two Democratic state lawmakers are dredging up a controversial proposal to block public universities in Kentucky from extending health benefits to unmarried, live-in partners of the institutions' employees.
"I had expected it but not from those two," said Representative Tom Burch, D-Louisville. "I expected it from Republicans."
Sixteen other Democratic lawmakers have signed on to the bill, which Henderson and Smith pre-filed yesterday in preparation for the upcoming General Assembly session that begins Jan. 8.
Both Henderson and Smith said they've received pressure from constituents to block universities that receive public funding from offering such domestic partnership benefits.
"I live in an ultraconservative district with 150 churches," Henderson said. "Between 1,200 and 1,500 of my constituents have called, not requesting but directing me to do this."
Henderson, a freshman legislator, represents Montgomery, Powell and Wolfe counties. Smith's district covers Knott, Magoffin and part of Letcher County.
The GOP led the charge against domestic-partner benefits earlier this year when Republican state Sen. Vernie McGaha of Russell Springs proposed a bill that banned state universities from offering them. After McGaha's measure failed to clear a state House committee, former GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher tried to put it on his agenda for a special legislative session last summer.
Trustees at several Kentucky institutions, led by the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville, have approved offering health care to domestic partners of unmarried employees, including those who are gay.
McGaha, Fletcher and other proponents of the measure argued that those universities that are partially funded by the state are out of step with the state's constitution, which was changed in 2004 to ban gay couples from being married.
But the policies of U of L and UK don't use public funds to pay for health insurance or subsidize coverage for unmarried partners of employees. Instead, the universities allow those individuals to buy into the health insurance pool.
"Whether or not we're subsidizing directly their health care plans, we are, in fact, subsidizing their construction and overall operations of the universities," said Henderson. "I am not out for political gain, I just feel like a public institution that draws money from the state coffers is at the will of the people.
"I do not feel this is micromanaging our colleges or universities," he added.
That's exactly what this proposal does, argued Burch.
"If that's what they want, what we should do is fire every regent in all the colleges around the state and let the legislature run the institutions if Mr. Henderson feels so strongly about it," he said.
Promise of veto
UK President Lee T. Todd said yesterday that state universities' trustees should be free to determine their employees' health care coverage, especially when trying to attract top faculty and staff members.
"I had five committees that recommended to me that we do this (offer domestic partner benefits). It would be my preference that they allow universities to make that decision based on our needs," he said.
That's also been the position of Beshear, who officially started his new job as governor yesterday.
"The governor would stand by what he said earlier this summer that he would veto any such legislation," said spokeswoman Vicki Glass. "Our universities are competing with the top universities nationwide ... and ought to be free to design their own benefit packages."
Henderson said he's not deterred by Beshear's position.
"I stand firmly behind my governor," he said. "But I have an obligation to my constituents."
Rep. Stan Lee, the Republican House whip from Lexington who supports a ban on universities offering domestic-partner benefits, said with Democrats taking the lead on such a bill, it increases the chances that it could attract more than the 60 votes required to override a veto.
But the debate, Lee conceded, is likely to be a lively one.
And the Kentucky Equality Federation, which advocates for gay rights, called the pre-filed bill "distasteful and not at all in line with Governor Beshear's inaugural speech" that called for inclusion, said Jordan Palmer, the group's president. A coalition of gay-rights groups is planning a Capitol rally in February.
A number of Kentucky's largest private employers, such as Toyota, extend health care benefits to live-in partners of workers.
What happened last time
Burch, who chairs the House Health and Welfare Committee, questioned why his Democratic colleagues were pursuing this issue.
"If the governor says he's going to veto it, why should we even fool with it?" he said.
It was in Burch's committee that McGaha's domestic partnership bill died when the panel deadlocked 8-8. Smith, the co-sponsor of this latest incarnation of the proposal, would have been the deciding vote but wasn't present.
Smith said yesterday he probably would have opposed that version of the bill because of unclear language that might have blocked university employees from having health coverage extend to foster children or grandchildren. This proposed legislation clarifies that, he said.
Smith said he expects opposition from other members of his own party, but he predicts that "we've got enough support to get it out of committee and out of the House floor and send it to the Senate."
Two Democratic House leaders -- House Speaker Jody Richards and Democratic Caucus Chairman Charlie Hoffman -- said yesterday they were aware that some Democrats were talking about filing a bill but weren't sure how other Democrats would react.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in the lower chamber, 61 to 36, with three open seats. And with a budget and other major policy proposals looming in the upcoming session, division within the majority party would be counterproductive, Hoffman said.
"We don't want this type of issue to be one of the biggest things that we'll be dealing with in Frankfort," Hoffman said. "We don't need any distractions. We will handle it in a way that it won't be."