June 03--A decade ago, a City-County Council committee spurned a proposal to offer health-care benefits to city workers' domestic partners. Defeated, a councilwoman reassured a mostly disappointed audience: "You may have lost a battle, but your war still remains."
The battle has returned, but the war, at least on this issue, is fading.
The debate surrounding the council's new domestic partner benefits proposal -- up for introduction Monday night -- has focused mostly on policy details, fairness issues and cost, estimated at less than 1 percent of what the city and Marion County spend on health insurance. It's also centered on the city's ability to compete for the best employees.
A bipartisan group of council sponsors say the measure stands a good chance of passing, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard has indicated that he will consider it.
Since then-Councilwoman Karen Celestino Horseman, a Democrat, made her 2002 remarks to defeated advocates, many more employers have begun offering employees perks for unmarried domestic partners, gay or straight.
The Human Rights Campaign's tally includes an estimated 150 to 200 municipalities and 24 state governments. The Washington, D.C.-based gay rights advocacy group also counts thousands of private employers -- including 60 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
While Chicago long has offered health insurance to city employees' domestic partners, in the last two years Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio have followed the Windy City. Their plans provide benefits for same-sex and opposite-sex unmarried partners, as the new Indianapolis proposal would do for city and county employees.
Officials in Toledo are considering a similar policy. Cincinnati adopted a measure last month. And Louisville will start offering such benefits July 1.
In Indiana, few governments have adopted such policies.
Bloomington offers domestic partner benefits. Several public universities, including Indiana, Purdue and Ball State, offer benefits for employees' same-sex partners, but state government agencies do not. And the universities do not provide benefits to unmarried opposite-sex partners.
Measure 'sends message'
Will French, 47, an election systems administrator for the Marion County Election Board, hopes Indianapolis joins them -- even if his family wouldn't benefit immediately, because he's single.
"I have a nontraditional family in that I have kids and I'm gay," French said, "and in this day and age, to have some sort of recognition -- even if it's sort of cutting the baby in half -- it's better than none. It's important for my kids and their future."
He added: "It sends the message that this is the type of organization that supports my family as well as somebody else's."
Consideration comes seven years after the council added sexual orientation and gender identity to Marion County's anti-discrimination ordinance.
But Councilman Zach Adamson stressed it's likely that more city/county employees with opposite-sex partners would take advantage of domestic partner benefits.
"We have to make sure we're not pigeon-holing this issue as just a gay issue," said Adamson, an at-large Democrat who is the council's first openly gay member. "Heterosexual couples can take advantage of this, if they meet the criteria."
Rick Snyder, the Indianapolis police union's first vice president, echoed that point. He said union leaders are keeping close tabs but haven't formally endorsed the proposal.
"It's a significant issue to our membership," Snyder said. "I think it's a positive step that it's coming forward."
Domestic partner benefits aren't unprecedented in Marion County. About five years ago, Lawrence Township offered the option for partners of unmarried employees. A handful of employees took advantage, Deputy Trustee Jason Tomcsi said, including some of the township's firefighters.
But those firefighters lost the coverage when Lawrence Township Fire Department merged with the Indianapolis Fire Department last year. And the township's insurer dropped the domestic partner option, Tomcsi said, because the number of remaining employees shrank so much.
IFD Capt. Brian Wisehart lamented the change, saying his girlfriend, Julie, lived without insurance for eight months until they got married last year. "I had her covered for probably about two years," he said. "It was a huge benefit to be able to cover my significant other."
Under the latest proposal, an employee's partner (and the partner's children) would qualify for health insurance if the couple has shared a residence for at least a year, is in a committed relationship and shares living expenses. The couple would establish a domestic partnership for insurance purposes.
Still estimating impact
It's not clear how many employees would sign up, but -- based on other employers' experiences -- the city's benefits consultant estimates just 28 of 7,451 eligible workers would apply for partner insurance coverage.
That takes into account several drawbacks for potential participants: the city has a "spousal carve-out" rule that disqualifies spouses from getting city health insurance if they can get it through their own employers.
And unlike for married couples, health benefits for a domestic partner are taxable as income.
The city still is working to estimate how much added cost would result from 28 employees enrolling their partners (and, potentially, the partners' children). An initial figure released Friday -- $357,371 per year -- didn't deduct premiums the city already pays for those employees' current coverage, though it did take into account the city's share of increased income taxes.
A better estimate, Controller Jeff Spalding said, may be less than $200,000 -- a less-than-0.5 percent increase to the $58.2 million the city and county spends annually on health benefits.
In Ohio, Columbus, which has a similar number of city employees, added 57 domestic partners and children to its health coverage last year, said Chet Christie, the city's human resources director. (Unlike Indianapolis, the city doesn't limit spouses' eligibility if they can access insurance otherwise.)
The cost for Columbus: $388,000 a year.
Similar to Indianapolis' experience, the Columbus City Council abandoned earlier attempts at offering domestic partner benefits over the last 15 years because of the opposition.
"Finally, two or three years ago, the mayor said: 'Look, this is embarrassing that we don't have this,' " said Dan Williamson, spokesman for Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman. "There's a cost to it, but it's affordable."
Proposal has critics
In Indianapolis, the potential cost is giving some council members pause, given the city's strapped budget. Democrat Angela Mansfield, who has worked on the issue for several years, says the cost is relatively small.
Some council members say they'll have plenty of questions when the Rules and Public Policy Committee examines the proposal in coming weeks.
They include whether the rules are drawn tightly enough to guard against fraud.
"There are a lot of questions here, and the more I see of it, the more my opposition builds to it," said Jack Sandlin, a Republican who represents a Far-Southside district.
Still unknown is whether social concerns will be much of a factor for members of both parties.
Said GOP Minority Leader Michael McQuillen, who counts himself among those with questions: "I think if we take our time and don't rush and come up with a package that makes sense, I would think there'd be bipartisan support to push it through."
Mayoral spokesman Marc Lotter said Ballard would be open to signing it.
"He wants to make sure that it's worded in a way that would prevent fraud and abuse and wouldn't open the city to lawsuits," Lotter said. "And, obviously, he wants take a look at the fiscal impact."
Council supporters point out that salaries for many city employees are generally lower than in the private sector, making benefits -- often with premiums covered mostly by local government -- an attractive add-on.
Besides Mansfield and Adamson, Republicans Robert Lutz and Ben Hunter and Democrats John Barth and Pam Hickman have signed on as co-sponsors.
"We have a lot of businesses that are adopting these types of programs, and businesses don't do things like that if they don't have some incentive," said Lutz. "And I think we need to run cities more like businesses."
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