Thursday, May 10, 2007

Getting Domestic Partner Benefits Back in the Budget

There's some talk that domestic partner benefits for UW employees may make a reappearance in the state budget.

The JFC plans to take up the topic as an item separate from the budget with a majority vote needed to re-insert it. That means at least one Republican on the committee would need to flip since an 8-8 split won't cut it. (Side-Note: Could that lucky JFC member be Alberta Darling, who is going to face a tough race next year in an increasingly blue district?)

According to Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford), the GOP members on the Joint Finance Committee won't let that happen because allowing domestic partner benefits for UW employees is a policy issue that needs to be worked out separate from the budget. As he put it:
They can’t win this debate in the public arena, so they are trying everything they can by hiding it. The fact is that most taxpayers and voters don’t agree with the policy, and not giving the public an adequate chance to talk about it is just bad policy.
I wonder if Suder feels the same way about the Milwaukee school voucher program, which was also established through a budget bill?

Anyway, more to the point, polls suggest Suder's just wrong about the "most taxpayers and voters don't agree with this policy" line. In fact, according to a Badger Poll conducted last summer, nearly 60 percent of the state approved of civil unions for same-sex couples, which is undoubtedly a step (or, more accurately, a few steps) beyond domestic partner benefits for UW System employees.

Some conservatives will surely cling to the vote on the marriage ban as evidence that this isn't a popular provision -- as Rep. Nass did a few months ago -- but domestic partner benefits for UW employees simply isn't what the referendum was about last fall.

The issue of domestic partner benefits boils down to two points: fairness and competition.

If gay and lesbian employees are not able to marry or engage in a civil union in order to participate in spousal benefits, it is only fair to allow them another avenue to partake in this aspect of their compensation package.

And there are simple ways to regulate domestic partner benefits to ensure they aren't abused. Rick Esenberg has offered up a reasonable structure that would require the couple to share living expenses and not be allowed to legally marry.

The details could be hashed out later, but, again, the point is that there are ways to make sure the benefits aren't simply used "for the boyfriends and girlfriends of state employees," as Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem) lamented back in February.

On the issue of competition, the UW System is behind the curve on domestic partner benefits. UW-Madison is the only university in the Big Ten that doesn't offer benefits to domestic partners, and that has an unquestionable impact on faculty recruitment and retention.

Just last year, for instance, an engineering researcher left UW-Madison and took his grant potential with him because the UW doesn't offer domestic partner benefits and the University of Pennsylvania, where he went, does. That professor alone amassed $3.4 million in grants over the past six years, which amounts to about $550,000 per year -- the same amount it would cost the state to offer domestic partner benefits to every UW employee.

And it's not just recruitment and retention of high profile faculty that's impacted by the lack of domestic partner benefits. The UW System is also in competition for qualified staff.

While most staff don't tend to leave geographic regions for employment in the same way as faculty, they can be lured away to one of the over 150 private employers in Wisconsin that offer domestic partner benefits, including Cardinal Stritch University, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Beloit College, Lawrence University, among a number of other non-college employers like US Bank, Aurora Health Care, General Electric, 3M, etc.

It's time to accept the fact that they're here, they're queer, and they deserve access to the same employment benefits as the rest of us.

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Blogger Dad29 said...

60 percent of the state approved of civil unions for same-sex couples, which is undoubtedly a step (or, more accurately, a few steps) beyond domestic partner benefits for UW System employees.

Great logic.

Before Selig's Palace was built, "60% of the state approves of a new stadium for the Brewers."

But that didn't mean that the approve of PAYING for the BENNIES (or the Stadium.)

May 10, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

And where's Suder's evidence that "most taxpayers and voters don’t agree with the policy"?

I would gladly push a poll that asked if people would be willing to use $550K a year in state funding to provide domestic partner benefits. If 60 percent approve of civil unions, I don't imagine it would be too tough to get at least 55 percent to back that question. And, out of curiosity, if they did, would you support the proposal?

Seems to me you're just fishing for a way to critique the justification of this proposal because you don't have anything of substance to oppose it.

May 10, 2007  
Blogger will andrew said...

To be honest, the only evidence to support anything like that is already refuted, being last year's poorly worded marriage referendum.

I couldn't honestly believe that Wisconsin couldn't field a 55% pro-benefits crowd when you factor in the voter make-up and the idea that this has absolutely nothing at all to do with the sanctity of marriage.

I'm wondering what the bottom line costs would work out to be when you factor in couples who both work in the system on separate benefit packages.

When factoring every financial reason to make the change for domestic benefits, how can a system like UW turn that down? It's not like they're beating people away with a stick when it comes to grants and funding.

May 11, 2007  
Blogger Dad29 said...

You got my point, anyway.

I suspect that if a poll were conducted (and that both of us could agree on the precise wording,) it would be VERY close.

Personally, I would not support the expenditure; I cannot support "benefits" for "domestic partners" which are paid for by the taxpayer.

No problem whatsoever with the same things being paid for by FoMoCo, Lands' End, etc.

May 11, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I cannot support "benefits" for "domestic partners" which are paid for by the taxpayer.


May 11, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I want domestic partner benefits for non-gays. Anyone see a light bulb going off?, or is this issue one sided.

May 14, 2007  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

A number of domestic partner agreements do include heterosexual couples. Oregon is one example.

May 14, 2007  

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